Veiled Intentions is a book which takes on a weighty topic (prejudice against Muslims) with mixed success. Bias alert – I’ve met Eileen Carr, and she is just about the sweetest person ever. Also, I discussed the book with her prior to reading it, which has definitely had an effect on my perception of the book.
Veiled Intentions concerns a high school guidance counselor, Lily Simon, who becomes worried about a student, Jamila. Jamila is accused of having hit a man with her car and having fled the scene. The case causes intense tensions in the high school and the town and Lily hits caught up in the middle of it.
There are a lot of things happening in this book, and most of them are not fully realized. There’s a mystery, but the reader knows the answer early on so we don’t have the pleasure of figuring it out. There’s a romance between Lily and a cute reporter, but we don’t get to know the reporter very well and it’s tacked on. The relationship doesn’t proceed past dating and I didn’t particularly root for it or against it. One of the better threads involves an alcoholic student who believes that her parents are clueless about her behavior even when she catches them talking about sending her to rehab. It’s quick but painful look at the gap between teens and parents, and the power of denial.
In Veiled Intentions, a lot of white people have heated opinions about what Islam means and what it means to be Muslim in America. The message seems to be, “Hate begets hate, so don’t hate, OK?” While I am 100% behind this message, I think the reason it falls flat in the book is that, with the exception of Kamila, the Muslim characters get very few opportunities to speak for themselves. They stay firmly entrenched as stereotypes. Kamila is a dutiful and faithful daughter. Her parents are strident and angry with a great deal of justification but no nuance. The teen boys at school are angry and one is legitimately scary.
Lily has a hard time countering anti-Muslim statements because she doesn’t know much about Islam or Arabic history, and she knows noting at all about the Muslim families in her town or the students in her school. She barely knows Kamila and they do not become close as the book progresses despite Lily’s efforts on her behalf. Lily makes efforts to change this at the end, pointing out “Negative perceptions of Muslim drop fifty percent if the person knows one Muslim. One.” It’s a lovely effort on Lily’s part but it’s too little too late for the reader, who never has a chance to get to know the Muslim characters.
Through some twists and turns that I was totally surprised by, the book makes an effective point that an atmosphere of hatred and mistrust poisons everyone, not just people from any one specific group. It also does a good job of demonstrating that hatred has very little to do with facts (the reader figures out very quickly that, as regard the hit-and-run, not all is as it seems). It’s a fast-moving, interesting book, one that keeps the reader’s attention through all the plot developments. The book does a lovely job of challenging attitudes of hatred but falls short when it comes to countering stereotypes.