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by Faïze Guéne
Translated from the French by Jenna Johnson
Reviewed by Akeela Gaibie-Dawood

Ahléme is 25 going on 40. She lives on the outskirts of France, with her ailing father and troubled teenage brother, amongst scores of other immigrants from various parts of the world. The family moved to France from Algeria some 15 years before, after her mother had been killed in a massacre in Algeria. But, after all this time, they remain aliens (non-French citizens) in a country thousands of Algerians still dream of.

This mostly-optimistic young lady is not your typical youth. She is a streetwise tomboy who has learned to take care of herself. In addition, she also takes care of her brother — whom she has "raised" since he was a toddler — so her feelings towards him are fiercely maternal, to the extent that she slaps him when she feels he's not being responsible, and gives him a tongue-lashing when the need arises. She also assumes responsibly for her depressed disabled father, who shows increasing signs of decline.

Her saving grace is her sympathetic judicious friend, Aunt Mariatou, who routinely dispenses priceless nuggets of advice, "Man is a jackal, but what woman can do without him? A person needs two hands to clap." She also holds that love is like hair, you have to take care of it!

The book is an easy read, one that will appeal to the younger reader. This gutsy, insightful young woman has a mind of her own, and though she always displays an air of bravado, her vulnerability sometimes shows through. There are some areas where she is particularly vulnerable: in love, as she allows herself to fall in love with an "incredibly desirable nasty character"; at the immigration office, as she awaits renewal of her three-monthly residency permit; and when trying to make a living in France. She remembers life in Algeria fondly and shares glimpses of an African village that is utterly compelling in its stark contrast to the France that she inhabits.

I would have loved this book if the text was not marred by the expletives in the mouth of the protagonist. Perhaps the translator felt it necessary to authenticate the voice of the young person? I felt it diminished the book and devalued Ahléme's natural charm and sharp sense of humor. Still, this is an effortless enjoyable read, if just to glimpse the issues faced by a North African immigrant in a current European setting.