The Gremlin’s Library: The Weight Of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

TW: This book and review deal with heavy mental illness themes as well as race riots & the severe violence involved. 

I’ve been involved in Book Twitter for a while now, but I’m still learning how to measure the tide of book announcements and getting hyped for new releases – and when Weight of Our Sky went on pre-order, I noticed, and for the first time ever, I paid attention. The description of the book had me immediately hooked. A girl with OCD trying to find her mother in a city tumbling into violent chaos? 1969 Malaysia?

Still, though, there’s always that hesitance when getting excited for a new book, the feeling that you’re getting ahead of yourself. Which is why when I finally got The Weight Of Our Sky from the library, it took me a little bit to work up the nerve to open it. When I did though… Holy shit, this book is immersive. I was immediately in Melati’s head, and Melati’s head was familiar. 

The Weight of Our Sky takes place during the infamous race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1969. Melati, 16, has been fighting OCD for months – a mental illness that she personifies as a djinn who plagues her with visions of her mother dying. She can only satisfy the djinn by counting the things around her in the right way, but when a contentious election leads to violence breaking out between the Malay and Chinese populations of Kuala Lumpur, Melati has to find her mother before her worst fear comes true.

I don’t know where to start with how hard this book hit me. I cried when Melati had to leave her best friend behind. I cried every time Melati’s djinn won and she got trapped in counting. I cried every time there was another senseless death. And yet somehow it isn’t a dark or bleak book – it’s about survival against the odds, surviving a terrible, long night and coming out the other end alive. It’s a historical novel, and a mental health novel, and a beautiful scream of a novel. I don’t have OCD (although sometimes I wonder) – I do have debilitating PTSD and intrusive thoughts that sound very, very much like Melati’s, and there is nothing comparable to the moment of seeing your demons laid out on paper. If you can see them, you can beat them.

The race dynamics and violence involved in the novel are much more outside my experience, though frankly that didn’t matter. It was unnerving – in a very deliberate way – how there was no good or bad side, and in a way that Western-set books never manage. When Western books try for the ‘both sides are bad’ take, it never feels sincere, but here it rang a lot more true. This is getting into historical-cultural context that I don’t have a full understanding of, so I’ll leave it at that – but if anybody with the same gut reaction to ‘both sides-ism’ I do is eyeing the book nervously, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.

The Weight of Our Sky is an incredible novel to be approached with caution, not because of anything bad, but simply because you will feel everything in it. I don’t think I’ve been impacted by a book this much in a long time, and even though it’s been months since I’ve read it, it’s stayed with me in a way I really can’t put words to. The novel is available through Chapters/Indigo here.

 

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