Jamilah at the End of the World
Jamilah at the End of the World
We were in a terrible heat wave when I first inspected the garage for bunker possibilities. I went out back and pulled on its side door. It stuck at first, then popped open. A waft of mildewy air hit my face as I looked around. I saw an elliptical machine and a recumbent exercise bike, which were moved out of the basement when Teta got here. Leaning against a full-length cracked mirror was a half-rolled carpet. In the middle was a big, green painted dresser with a black garbage bag squatting on top of it, half open and spilling baby clothes. I opened a dresser drawer. It was empty except for a scattering of mice poop. The space was about ten by fourteen feet. The cinder-block element was good. You could do a lot with cinder blocks. They’re good for insulation, are fireproof and are easy to paint.
Jamilah at the End of the World was a book that I wanted to love. The premise is intriguing and relevant: Jamilah, 17, has intense anxiety about climate change, to the point of obsessing over creating a bunker to live in when the world becomes inevitably unlivable. Her hyper-focus on doomsday planning is only intensified when Toronto experiences a blackout period in the middle of summer. Each chapter starts with a survival tip with Jamilah’s added commentary, and most are quite witty and fun to read. However, the majority of the text feels like it is forcing itself to sound like a teenager’s vernacular, and it misses the mark. Scenes where Jamilah describes the girls her male friend texts are difficult to read (“I also think the chicks he was texting were getting skankier and skankier because he had no sex drive left”) and even after discovering her hateful comments might be fueled by jealousy, the word choices still didn’t sit right with me as a reader who works closely with teenagers on a near-daily basis. This was the first in a list of follies that made this novel difficult for me to finish. It was tough to like Jamilah, to understand her thought process and the way she talked about people, and to sympathize with her, which I understand was one of the conflicts the protagonist was trying to communicate with her family members and friends. This is a common trope in contemporary YA novels, but, as I reader I kept wishing I was given more opportunities to genuinely like Jamilah and understand her point of view.
Jamilah at the End of the World is a quick read, coming in at under 150 pages, but it tries to talk about too many big ideas in such a small space. Jamilah presents readers with the following symptoms of a broken society in the condensed text: climate change, the refugee crisis, unhoused Indigenous populations, police brutality, outdated gender roles, and more. This is paired with Jamilah’s distaste for recreational drug use by her friends (while fully admitting to her vaping addiction), and feeling slut-shamed by her father after he sees her kissing a boy (see above quote from Jamilah calling other girls skanks). All of this leads to an unfinished sense to a lot of plot points. The writing feels forced to sound like it is coming from a teenager (“Okay, Boomer,” I said.), and created a near-whiplash experience as new details were brought in at unsuspecting times that didn’t seem necessary or contribute to the plot in any functional way. The main conflict of climate change is fairly fleshed out throughout the plot, but a lot of the other topics are disregarded after their initial introduction. Jamilah does get her happy(ish) ending and, towards the end, begins to show more redeeming qualities through her resolute attitude and ability to advocate for herself, but it was too little, too late for me as a reader. Might this novel fall into the hands of a reader who is unbothered by the surface treatment of several societal issues that teenagers are incredibly capable of understanding and discussing? Possibly. However, I was not that reader.
Lindsey Baird is a high school English teacher in Lethbridge, Alberta.