by Renee Ahdieh, 2015
Let’s talk about abusive relationships. If someone threatens your safety or treats you poorly, it doesn’t matter what happened in their past. It doesn’t matter if they have an explanation for why they behave the way they do. It doesn’t matter if they, in fact, hate themselves for their behavior. It doesn’t even matter if you find you are attracted to them. You do not have an obligation to be with them.
This is all I could think about while reading The Wrath and the Dawn. Based on the Persian/Arabic/Indian classic One Thousand and One Nights, this young adult novel focuses on teenage Shahrzad (Shazi) who offers herself up to be married to the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, a boy king who takes a new bride each night and kills her the following morning. When Shazi’s best friend Shiva suffers this fate, Shazi vows revenge. True to the story’s origins, Shazi is the first bride to survive the wedding night, a feat accomplished by her ability to weave tales that transfix the king.
Where the book takes a disappointingly predictable and slightly disturbing turn is when, about three days in, Shazi starts to feel an attraction to this murderer. He’s done nothing to prove his worth to her except, you know, not kill her, and the fact that he apparently looks pretty nice without his shirt on is enough for Shazi to renege on her vengeful plans when the perfect opportunity is afforded to her. Cue Shazi’s inner torment over her newfound feelings for this homicidal brute, coupled with guilt over the fact that she is betraying the man she loves back home (because of course we have to have a love triangle). I kept wanting to shout, “THIS MAN KILLED YOUR BEST FRIEND!” but I suppose I didn’t get the gene where a dark, smoldering look is enough to make me forget such treachery because I simply could not identify.
I can’t help but compare this story to Fifty Shades of Grey. Here we have another brooding “hero” whose damning actions we are supposed to accept because he suffered earlier in his life. Shazi’s relationship with the Caliph is not so different from Christian’s relationship with Ana – both male antagonists are written as malleable beings who can only become true and good if the right woman takes the time to love them. They are Beasts and the protagonists – and us by proxy – are Beauty and we must desire to transform them with our love.
Well, I call bullshit on that. We have all suffered, we have all been damaged, and yes, some more than others, but it is not my job to fix that. That’s what licensed therapists are for. I realize that doesn’t make for the most compelling story – I loved him, but he had issues, so he saw a therapist and we’re working through his trauma – but neither is it helpful to perpetuate the lie that we can change someone’s hurtful behavior with our love alone.
If there’s one thing for which I will commend Ahdieh, it’s for bringing new life to this Middle Eastern classic. At the moment it seems a disproportionate amount of attention is being given to retellings of Anglo-European tales and we need to shine some light on writings from other parts of the world. However, I can’t get behind her central message here. Love does not conquer all…least of all, murder.