I first heard of Towelhead when I caught a trailer for the Alan Ball-directed film adaptation of Alicia Erian’s novel. The trailer looked like a sweet (perhaps a little bittersweet) coming-of-age story with moments of dark humor. The book is all of these things, but I was not at all prepared for exactly how disturbing it would be, or how utterly sad.
Towelhead is written in the frank and simplistic words of 13-year-old Jasira, the daughter of a white mother and a Lebanese father. In the summer of 1991, Jasira moves from her mother’s house in Syracuse, NY, to Houston, TX, to live with her strict father, Rifat. In a largely white community, Jasira becomes increasingly aware of the fact that she’s different and that different is bad. But when she starts to date a fellow student who is black, Rifat angrily forbids her from seeing him, reacting out of deep-seated prejudices he insists he doesn't possess. For more about Towelhead,
Turns out, most things anger Jasira’s father, and when he's angry, he hits Jasira and berates her. Meanwhile, Jasira's next-door neighbor, Mr. Vuoso, offers her the attention and what she perceives to be positive affection that she so desperately craves. Unfortunately, Mr. Vuoso wants to be way more than just a friendly neighbor and at the root of his interest in Jasira there’s a sinister, ugly desire. Jasira’s one ray of hope comes from another neighbor, a young pregnant woman named Melina who wants to help and protect Jasira.
At times it’s a frustrating read because Jasira has very few people she can trust not to hurt her and this grows wearying. Even her mother has jealousy issues and blames Jasira for any number of things she couldn't possibly have done. Jasira’s father constantly finds fault with her, mostly having to do with her developing body. The worst parts involve Mr. Vuoso, whose depraved exploitation of Jasira’s naivete and her burgeoning curiosity about sex is absolutely heartbreaking and difficult to read. Thus, she receives mixed messages about her body and her sexuality: shame and disgust from her father, leering objectification from the adult man next door, and a slightly more innocent desire for exploration from a boy her age.
In truth, there are parts of this book that made me feel like vomiting, and I had to put it down at times. And yet somehow, Erian's writing made me obsessed with Jasira’s story and I had to keep reading. As bleak and horrible as it can get, Jasira's narration is so simplistic and childlike, I kept reading just so I could see if she would ever find some kind of relief, love, or peace. There are also points of great humor as Jasira tries to navigate this new, very adult world all by herself. It’s a gripping tale, and I really like Erian’s no-nonsense writing style, though it’s also emotionally trying.