Title: The Girl From Everywhere
Author: Heidi Heilig
Genre: YA, Fantasy
Rating: ★★★☆☆ | 2.5
I’m already tired of writing this review, and I haven’t even begun. This is largely because I have very few feelings about this novel and quite a few thoughts, and I’m honestly not even sure I have energy enough––or frankly, that I give enough of a shit––to write a whole review, which is kind of a problem when you’ve read a whole novel.
Like, I liked it fine? I just have a total of zero emotions about it otherwise, which may be in part due to the stomach virus I came down with after graduation and in part due to the reading slump I’ve been in all year. Maybe the novel just hit me at a bad point, because it has many things that I would otherwise enjoy. But I read it when I read it, so these thoughts will have to suffice, and this is as fair as it’s going to get.
I started off the review with kind of a combative tone, I know, which might leave the wrong impression because I genuinely don’t think the novel is Bad or anything. It was just kind of frustrating because it didn’t evoke any emotion in me, and past a certain point, it got incredibly annoying that it didn’t. I probably couldn’t tell you what happened in the last 1/5 of the book, which is a real shame, because that’s when all the action is.
It’s also a real problem in a story whose problem is so existential: Nix’s mom died in 1868, just after she was born, and her father, a time traveler, has been desperate ever since to make his way back to 1868 in order to stop her from dying. But his doing that may change her timeline irrevocably––or erase the person she is now for good. She’s stuck between helping her father (who reads to me as being quite abusive? Though the text never addresses this) and keeping him away from 1868 so she can stay the person she is. When they finally do make it to Hawai’i, they’re years too late and the Americans on the island are in the process of staging a coup––a coup they need Nix and her father to help with if they want a map of 1868.
These are incredible stakes––the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, forcibly annexed by the United States, Nix’s very existence––but somehow, idk I just didn’t really give two shits, you know? Which really sucks, because this should have been an incredibly emotionally riveting read––a daughter’s complicated relationship with her father, a girl’s complicated relationship with her homeland––which is also a poignant metaphor for her identity as someone who is mixed race, who is diaspora.
I think the problem is largely that Nix herself is quite a bland character, and doesn’t do enough to distinguish herself from the veritable hordes of other YA protagonists for me to really care about her. When the novel first came out, actually, I had no intention of reading it for this precise reason––I read the blurb and I thought to myself that it was just trying so hard to be edgy. I mean, come on. The girl’s name is Nix.
It wasn’t until I started following Heidi Heilig on Twitter that I reconsidered this decision, because she seemed like such a cool person and I had so much respect for her and her using her voice and her platform to address injustice. I still very much respect her for all that, and I still think she’s a cool person, I just think I have a higher opinion of who she is as a person than I do for her novel.
Because, tbqh, the only character who remotely interested me, or showed any personality of their own, was Kash, and he was in many ways a walking stereotype of a smooth-talking, PG-sexy Persian thief. When I guess could be explained by the fact that he comes from a map drawn by a Frenchman’s fantasies of Iran based on A Thousand and One Nights, but it still made me squint suspiciously. Because frankly, I’m willing to give authors of colour a lot more leeway, but I also know very emphatically that self-Orientalism is A Thing (also the thing I will complain about ad infinitum. I can’t help that I was raised by wuxia and cdramas and therefore have very high expectations vis-a-vis not Doing the Thing).
I won’t speak to the portrayal of Hawai’i within the novel; Heilig is from there and I am not, and I know very little about Hawai’ian history past its annexation by American plantation owners, but it did kind of rub me the wrong way that the biggest advocate for and the sole voice of Hawai’i within the novel was quite literally the blandest white boy possible, and the notion of Hawai’i being paradise went pretty unchallenged through the book. I enjoyed the line Blake had about Paradise not being lost, but being destroyed, but to my understanding the conceptualisation of Hawai’i as some pristine paradise is Othering and destructive and an inherently imperialistic concept––I seriously encourage everyone to at least skim through Michel-Rolph Truillot’s The Savage Slot, which talks about utopia as being one of the components of a fundamental displacement of European creation of identity onto the Othered, the “savage.”
I also saw that a lot of people were complaining about the love triangle, but it didn’t ever really bother me because Blake Hart wasn’t ever really a character and thus wasn’t ever really a serious contender as a love interest––he was a convenient tour guide and moral compass and there to make Kash jealous and that was mostly??? it??? Who are you Blake, who are you?
What I can speak to is the representation of Chinese history/diaspora history. I want to stress that it’s not a problem of authenticity––the only inauthentic Chinese voice is the non-Chinese voice claiming to speak on behalf of Chineseness––it’s largely a problem of historicity, and there were several major historical inaccuracies.
Though honestly, I’m not even as annoyed as I would have been had this been any other book, and it’s not even because a) Heidi is herself Chinese or b) I really like her as a person. It’s because I couldn’t quite bring myself to care? Part of it is that it really is quite diverse and her research shows, and I’m hardly the person to finagle about historical accuracy*, and part of it is just that I didn’t have the emotional investment in the novel to really…have any sort of reaction to the content. Which really sucks, but there it is.
I’ll probably start the second novel to see if I like it any better, because that’s been known to happen in the past, but TBH I’m not going to force it this time. If I still can’t get emotionally invested, I’ll just pick up something else.
*I should make a note here that this attitude largely applies to people who have had their histories represented accurately (and consistently so) to begin with; I definitely reserve the right to get peevy when histories of marginalised people, of the Global South, of indigenous people, etc. are wrong.