Randa Abdel-Fattah, When Michael Met Mina, Pan Macmillan, 28 June 2016, 360pp., $18.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781743534977
In Year 11 Mina moves with her Afghani parents from a multicultural western suburb to Sydney’s north to take up a scholarship at a private college. Although Michael is knocked for six at first sight of Mina, this is not to be a Romeo and Juliet scenario. These characters are drawn realistically and of their age and times. They are both close to their parents, but Michael’s just happen to run a group called Aussie Values whose current aim is to fight the good fight against what they see as the flood of refugees, Islamic schools, and the subsequent erosion of the Australian way of life.
This story starts at a protest rally, but mostly shifts between the school setting and the homes of the two protagonists. The characters are well drawn. Mina has a strong sense of herself and the struggles of her family. They are resilient, and yet powerless against the horrors of the bigots they come across in their new home. Michael is at first supportive of his family, going along with expectations and not looking too deeply at the possible ramifications. But when he tries to befriend Mina she doesn’t let him get away with anything short of the whole truth. Michael is forced to both examine his own beliefs and challenge those of his parents. His attraction to Mina persists, even as she tries her best not to succumb.
The other characters are also well fleshed out – various school friends as well as the family members – and they have important roles to play in the novel. Both families have complexities and layers. Although I found the Aussie Values people a bit hard to believe, I don’t think this was a fault in the writing. The author represents loving parents who nonetheless have harsh attitudes to refugees and are also encouraging others with more extreme views to attract attention to their cause. Michael’s words in the first lines of the novel made more sense when I looked back:
I know two things for a fact.
My parents are good people.
And ever since I can remember they have been angry about everything.
The alternating narrative voices of Michael and Mina help keep the pace up and also leave some space to absorb each character’s situation. Mina’s family backstory is developed in a way that strengthens our understanding as the story progresses, whilst it is Michael’s inner turmoil that occupies our attention in his chapters. The other school characters have their own parts to play, with bullies and crushes told in a nuanced language which has them supporting the main plot line without diminishing their own importance.
The language of setting is evocative, especially early on as Mina relishes her last night in the warmth and variety of the Auburn community, or when she recounts horrible dreams of her past as a refugee. Michael, an artist, travels to Auburn while mulling over his situation, trying to get a better understanding of Mina and appreciating the street life before him.
The romance is nicely played by the author, who keeps Michael trying to break through Mina’s defences. Meanwhile, Mina remains good and strong, but human as well. Their romance is not overdone, but forms a glue that holds the other elements of the story together.
When Michael Met Mina is an engaging contemporary story that would fit with themes of refugees, free speech and family conflicts. It would particularly lend itself to dramatisation of many scenes from school, family and street encounters. The cover gives a good indication of the content of the book and avoids the pitfall of overstating its girl appeal.
Reviewed by Marita Thomson