The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

The Beauty of Your Face is a novel about a Palestinian American woman’s struggles with her family and living in America, told simultaneously in the present day of a school shooting and through her memories of her life up until that point. Afaf is the principal of Nurrideen School for Girls, a Muslim school in Chicago that one morning is attacked by a white male shooter. She was praying in the old confessional at the time, and as she listens to what is happening outside her hiding place, the novel tells her life story, from her parents’ troubled lives as Palestinian immigrants to the community she finds in Islam.

Most of the narrative is taken up with Afaf’s earlier life, with the shooter situation bookending sections as time jumps forward. This works well as a dual narrative, though much of the present narrative in these middle parts was unexpectedly focused on the shooter rather than Afaf’s perspective. Doing this shows how the online alt-right influenced him, but is perhaps a surprise jump when the narrative was just looking at Afaf’s memories and emotions. The story of Afaf’s family is told well, as complex characters look to survival and forgiveness, and displays how family doesn’t mean you necessarily see eye to eye, especially around religion and what brings solace. The novel looks deeply at America and how communities need to be forged and connected to allow for understanding, both within and across groups and divides.

A powerful novel that draws you into the lives of its characters, The Beauty of Your Face is about a school shooter, but also and perhaps more notably, it is about looking for belonging and understanding, within your own family and beyond. The exploration of Islamophobia in America is incisive and shows how it has changed over time, but always affects people’s lives in deep and terrible ways.