Second-generation Syrian American Khadija Shaami lives to buck the expectations of others, especially her overbearing mother. She loves driving her huge, luxurious Mercedes-Benz G-wagon, has decked out her bedroom with Syrian flags and artwork and is the only Muslim girl who boxes at her gym. Leene Taher, a refugee from Syria, seems to embody all the stereotypes Khadija wants to defy. Leene is a respectful, diligent daughter who’s grieving the loss of her father and brother while trying her best to fit in and make friends in a new country. When Khadija’s mother invites Leene and her mother to live with them and all but insists that the girls become friends, both are positive that it will never happen.
Yet as time passes, Khadija and Leene realize that their differences might be useful to each other. Khadija can help Leene find her place in America, and Leene can help Khadija placate her mother and earn permission to travel abroad next summer. But as the two begin to reveal their secrets to each other, an opportunity arrives that could heal their families and cement their friendship—if they’re brave enough to pursue it.
The Next New Syrian Girl is a heartbreaking but hopeful story about two girls trying to do right by their families while finding their own independent paths. Syrian American debut author Ream Shukairy balances moments of joy—scenes at Khadija’s boxing gym, shared rides in the car that Leene dubs “the Tank” and a particularly funny reference to popular professional wrester John Cena—with weighty themes, including grief, depression, suicide, racism and war.
The book’s brightest light is Shukairy’s depiction of how Khadija and Leene embrace their identities and come to value their unique passions and dreams. Their distinct voices flow well together within the novel’s dual-narrative structure, offering portrayals of two young women who refuse to let simplistic definitions rule their lives. This refusal is often literal, as Khadija frequently offers up dictionary-style vocabulary explanations before countering them with her own perspective, and Leene is equally fascinated by the concept of semantics, “the meaning of words based on context.”
The Next New Syrian Girl could be more consistently paced—it’s front-loaded with repetitious details and races through its back half—but the large cast of supporting characters provides ample rewards. Standouts include Khadija’s emotionally complex mother and her kindhearted crush at the gym. Shukairy skillfully illuminates the many ways that Khadija’s and Leene’s lives are shaped by the presence and the absence of loved ones, and these dynamics lead to rich contrasts throughout.
For readers who enjoy heart-wrenching, character-driven novels, The Next New Syrian Girl establishes Shukairy as a new author to watch.