Borderline starts out as a coming of age story about Sami Sabiri, a Muslim-American teen who is struggling to balance his family with his school and social life in a very white suburb. It turns in to a taut thriller that explores safety in the Homeland Security era, race, and terrorism.
Now, if those were descriptions of two different books, I would probably pick up book #2. And if I did, I would be missing out. While the issues of justice, fear, and racial profiling that are addressed in the story of the arrest of Sami’s father are extremely interesting and the author does a nice job of carefully weaving them into the text, I did find the situations sometimes past my point of belief. And I was genuinely more invested in Sami’s story before he is thrust into extraordinary circumstances – not my usual reaction to a book.
Sami is such a likable kid, and his isolation from friends and schoolmates and his frustration with his strict father are shown in a way that make you really feel for him. Sami’s easy sense of humor when he is with his best friends Andy and Marty contrasts with his insecurity at school, where he is the only Muslim student. But as Sami tries to navigate a path between the usual small teenage rebellions and his desire to please his parents, and especially his strict and distant father, Sami begins to drift away even from his friends, who don’t understand the pressures that Sami feels. Sami’s uneasy navigation of those relationships are this book’s greatest strength.
Sami’s father’s strange actions begin to arouse Sami’s suspicions, and shortly after Sami launches his own investigation of his father’s activities, Mr. Sabiri is suddenly arrested and accused of being part of a terrorist plot. Not only is Sami ostracized and sometimes threatened by neighbors, classmates, and even school officials, but he is also desperate to learn the truth about his father. Whlie his mother works closely with a lawyer to fight a justice system that seems to ignore the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty in the face of potential terrorism, Sami becomes convinced that he is the only person who will be able to reach the accused leader of the terror plot and prove his father’s guilt or innocence. He and his buddies race off on a poorly-planned mission to seek out a possible terrorist.
This is the part of the story that I had some mixed feelings about. Maybe if Sami hadn’t been such a vividly drawn character, I might have been more willing to gloss over some of the tremendously stupid decisions that were made by someone who seemed like a smart kid, if a little bit impulsive. If this book had started as a legal thriller, I probably would never have questioned Sami’s actions in his quest to save his dad. But because Sami was so real to me, I had a little trouble reconciling the two parts of the book, which sometimes pulled me out of the action of the story.
I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the true story behind Sami’s father’s arrest is much more interesting and convincing than I ever would have guessed. I may have drifted away a little bit, but the conclusion really grabbed my interest and pulled me back into the plot of the book. And I never drifted away from the characters – Sami and his friends and family had a grip on me from beginning to end.
Allan Stratton on the web
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.