three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
By: 
Alicia Erian
user_rating: 
0

A-TowelheadAgainst the backdrop of the Gulf War, Jasira, a 13-year-old Arab-American, narrates the story of her sexual awakening. After her mother uncovers an inappropriate altercation between Jasira and the mother’s former boyfriend, Jasira goes to live with her strict Lebanese father in Houston. Unable to handle his daughter’s burgeoning sexuality, Jasira’s father leaves her to her own devices. Those devices lead her straight into a starkly sexual relationship with a bigoted neighbor—a U.S. Army reservist—who simultaneously befriends, seduces, and exploits her.
Simon & Schuster. 336 pages. $22.
ISBN: 074324494X

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Alicia Erian’s compelling debut novel fits into several categories, but none too tidily. It’s sad and sexy, comic and political." Anne Morris

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"… Towelhead is surprising: it succeeds as an arch, coyly sexy book that’s as nervy as its title. … And it works because Ms. Erian turns the tables on her own material, recasting a tale of repeated sexual molestation into a sneaky, improbable comedy of manners."
Janet Maslin

Scotland on Sunday 4 of 5 Stars
"The book is sexy, sad, and subtly written …" Jackie McGlone

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Towelhead nicely captures the rush of sexual stimuli that, especially when coupled with a lack of hard facts, turns an awakening into a fever dream. … Erian’s prose sounds convincingly like an adolescent’s—in a good way—and Towelhead has a darkly comic undertow." Jeff Giles

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"Alicia Erian takes that exploration [of sexuality and puberty] to uncomfortable extremes in Towelhead. … A deeper exploration of … political and racial issues would have been interesting, but Erian keeps them mostly in the background." Ana Cabán

Guardian Observer 2 of 5 Stars
"Towelhead is difficult to read because, in telling it from the child’s perspective, it seems disjointed. … It feels more a textbook for pre-pubescent teens than the novel it intends to be." Rebecca Seal

Critical Summary

Much of the debate over Towelhead centers on its controversial title, a racist slur referring to Arab-Americans. It’s just one risk of many that Erian takes in her first novel. Most critics praised the mix of blunt sexuality and humor, as well Erian’s depiction of racism of all sorts, from the classmates who call Jasira "towelhead" to Jasira’s own father, who makes bigoted distinctions between North African Arabs and African Americans. A few, however, found the graphic sex gratuitous and the larger political issues unexplored. They also disagreed about whether Jasira’s continued naiveté throughout the novel was poignant and sad, or merely tiresome and annoying.