Week 3 of the Write a Novel Challenge organised by SchoolsCompared.com and WhichSchoolAdvisor.com has just concluded and 5 new chapters have been added to our exciting, evolving magnum opus. If you thought that last week was a wild ride, wait till you know how the plot unfurls this week!
The past 10 chapters took us through Neina’s journey from Earth to a mystical/ supernatural world named Mors World. We learn that if she were to stay alive in the human world, then she would have to face a series of challenges in this alternate world and prove herself worthy enough to live. The past chapters have been a series of fleeting, almost psychedelic images through the Mors World. We saw Neina running through one strange dimension to another - a tunnel with tortured souls, an eerily normal living room, a blinding tower of sunshine, rooms in which the ground disappears suddenly, a dark, swallowing archway and so on. Chapter 10 closed with Neina coming face to face with someone familiar. Let’s take it up from there. Ready, steady, go!
Chapter 11 has been written by Siwar Hamdi, Year 11, of iCademy Middle East. Putting an end to the suspense as to who is it that Neina meets, we get to know that it’s none other than her father.
“It was with a slight feeling of disgust that she recognised the figure standing about twenty feet in front of her.”
These lines imply that in all probabilities, Neina does not have a very amicable relationship with her father. Readers will expect that this is something future authors will elaborate on.
Neina is motioned by her father to follow him into the dark archway and with no other option or way out, she relents. He leads her to a very familiar looking door - the door to her childhood bedroom that that had “once led her to the happiest place on earth.” But what she saw now was a room stripped of everything familiar. It lay empty, bare and cold. Then her father points to something in a corner. Upon closer inspection, Neina realises that she is actually looking at her mother who is in a destitute condition -
“Her eyes like two black marbles, lips chapped, dripping with blood, a rotting set of teeth.”
She’s lying face down on the ground with her hands tied up at the back. As Neina tries to untangle her, she’s interrupted by the screeching of the chalkboard. Her Dad writes something on it and then screams the words, “It was Isla”.
The most noticeable thing about this particular chapter is just how effectively sensory the description is. Be it the physical description of Neina’s parents, the stench of chemicals in the room, the jarring sound of chalk on board or Neina’s father’s “bone chilling” scream. If the author’s intention is to underscore the unpleasantness of the whole situation, the result is indeed commendable. However, readers might find it difficult to form an accurate physical image of Neina’s father as there’s a slight discrepancy in his description - he’s said to be having a “lanky stature” at the onset of the chapter and a little later he’s said to be raising a “fat finger.”
Chapter 12 is penned by Srija Suragouni, Year 9, of GEMS FirstPoint School. We now see that the three words “It was Isla” have a purgative effect on Neina.
“Those three words brought inexplicable clarity to a dilemma that had forever clouded and obstructed her life. A feeling of actual relief. In that moment, Neina truly asked herself: “Is this what happiness feels like?” For the first time, she had real answers.”
This chapter does not give any crystal-clear answers as to what haunts Neina so much so that it cripples her soul. But we do get a lot of loose threads which will help weave the story further in the upcoming chapters. Here are some of these foreshadowing statements that future authors might want to keep in mind - there’s a hint about Neina’s mother’s disappearance (and the fact that Neina is responsible for it because she wasn’t good enough in some way for her mother). Also, that Isla is the reason behind all the misery that her family is facing. Isla is referred to as a “pathetic, sociopathic excuse of a being”. Neina is filled with a blinding rage and now all that she wants is “revenge”. The chapter closes with the room and Neina being immersed in a blinding, ethereal light.
Chapter 13 is written by Fares Sharifi, Year 10, of Repton Abu Dhabi and may I take this opportunity to add, that this chapter is the much needed turning point in the hitherto developed story. Read on to know why.
The words “It was Isla” are an epiphany for Neina.
Neina wonders, “ Who was Isla? What was Isla?” And we finally get the answer - Isla actually symbolises the “American dream”. She is young, ambitious, beautiful and “fair”. This approximation which was the root cause of all that never let Neina’s mother be at peace, and now the same fears were driving her life towards an abyss. But now Neina has realized that the only way to overcome her fears is to take them by the horns,
“Go back to the beginning. Retrace your steps. Find what you have lost. Neina’s beautiful and complex mind spurred into action.”
If Neina has to beat the demons of her past, she will have to address them rather than letting them chase her through a never exhausting labyrinth. Neina thinks of her childhood spent as an African American. Her mind is flooded with images of her mother,
“The desired heart-shaped face, almond-shaped eyes and perfectly symmetrical features. Her skin was smooth and blemish-free, with a shade of ebony that radiated through a crowded room.”
Neina’s mother was beautiful and yet she struggled to think of herself as worthy, she took painstaking measures to hide her roots. She went to extreme lengths to straighten out her curls (owing to her African American heritage) and passed on the same obsession to Neina. She learned from her mother that the curls had to be kept “under control.” All though Neina was an achiever and worked twice as hard as her counterparts. From the age of 5, she was taught to “work hard and always be ready to answer questions, defend her position, know when to push and when to hold back.”
It is in this chapter that we understand the real conflict that the protagonist is going through: it’s an inner battle. She is hiding her heritage and struggling to be something that she was not as she is pitted against the perfect American ideals like Isla. Isla is a representative of millions who make individuals like Neina question their heritage and capabilities. Isla is an “assassin” of that uniqueness and diversity.
If we do a super quick revisit of the initial chapters, we’ll recall that Neina had to do “three tasks” if she had to prove herself worthy of living. For the first challenge, Neina answered a cryptic riddle. Now we are introduced to the next two challenges;
"Challenge 2: Recognize this illusion.
Challenge 3: Recognize myself.”
So there it is. It seems like all that Neina encountered till now - Isla as a green paranormal assassin, getting shot and bleeding profusely, being transported to Mors world, slimy monsters, dark alleys, tortured souls, the floor slipping from beneath her feet, everything was actually being played out in Neina’s mind! All the while she had been on Earth, at her home, physically unharmed but her mind was alive with the illusions of a journey through a magical world!
She’s now overcome the second challenge by breaking free of this mental illusion of being in Mors World; she’s also championed the third challenge by recognising and accepting herself. She now proudly accepts;
‘Black is beautiful, black is exceptional, black is powerful, black is me’
There’s also a hint of the TV in Neina’s apartment reporting something that was bringing a “change”. I suspect this to be a reference to the “Black Lives Matter” movement happening across the globe, right now. With this, our novel has become excitingly topical, almost a social commentary! Neina is now ready to face her challenges and she steps out of the house with confidence allowing her spiraled curls to hang freely down her back for the first time.
As relieved is Neina to be to back in the real, human world, so am I as a reader. To be honest, the magical world with its sometime haywire twists and turns had started to feel like being in a neon lit room with flashes of light being thrown in every now and then. I wasn’t sure for how long we’d be following Neina running from one distorted reality to another.
Fares, the author of this chapter has rightly pointed out that coming back to the real world will allow more flexibility in developing the story. Thank you Fares!
For Chapter 14 the baton is passed on to Maya Adham, Grade 10, of Dunecrest American School. Neina now steps out of her house to head to her office to face Isla. The predicament that she is facing at work is the fact that despite working tirelessly for 15 years, she’s being forced to share her office and her credit with a fresher like Isla.
We now know that Isla is white American while Neina is an African American. However, there is no hint that Isla is being promoted based on her race. That is something that we may find out in the future chapters. What we know for sure is that, Neina now acknowledges that if she hopes to find a solution to her problems then she has to work through them and not run away from them. And she is now confident of going back to office to face Frankie and Isla and address the issue.
With still some time on hand, she finds a secluded bench in a meadow. The wooden bench bears the engraved phrase, “vastata est nitor non ad iram”. Neina doesn’t understand the term but after going in a trance like state for a while she finds an old woman seated next to her who explains that the phrase means “Brilliance must not be wasted on anger.”
This lifts the haze immediately and Neina heads back to her office. She tells Frankie that she is well capable of handling the job herself, without Isla’s aid. And just as she’s about to foray into her speech further, Isla enters the room.
A very vital detail that readers need to remember from this chapter is that it is for the first time that the fate of Neina’s mother is mentioned clearly - she’s said to be dead and Neina sees facing her own challenges as the “first step in avenging her mother’s death”.
Chapter 15 is written by Salma Ghalwash, Year 11, of Deira International School. The chapter opens with Isla walking in.
Frankie’s gaze is fixed on Isla: expressionless, he fires Neina for “uncooperative and negligent” behaviour. What is really surprising is that in the past two chapters we saw Neina brimming with a new found confidence; a fire burnt within her to rise up to her adverseries, but we see none of that here. Not a word in her defense, she “just escaped through any door she could find”. The story had taken a very interesting turn and seemed like becoming a very relevant social commentary, but this chapter once again brings back the paranormal element.
And there she faces Isla again, this time we see Isla in a new avatar;
“Her usually perky nose began to protrude out of her face. The translucent skin tore along the centre of her face, revealing a disfigured layer of flesh dotted with cracks and scabs. Green claws sprouted from her bones, spiraling horns propelled from her skull, and a thick leathery tail flopped on the floor behind her.”
Isla says that she sees Neina as the threat who would impede on her power therefore, she must destroy her. As Isla is trying to destroy Neina’s soul, Freya, Neina’s friend from school days, appears and pulls Neina’s soul from Isla’s clutches. Freya whispers to her-
“This has gone too far; we can’t risk losing you. You are destined to fulfil the prophecy. You only have one more chance to save your family, and bring an end to the vile curse which that beast has cast upon your blood. Don’t fail us, not like your mother.”
With this Neina finds herself back on the cobblestone path that she walked on in Chapter 1 and she finds herself looking at a woman who is actually her! Neina is not sure what is happening, if she’s hallucinating. Add to that, she spots an out of place chasm which is reminiscent of the destruction on Mors World.
And the chapter closes with this.
I am now looking forward to the coming week to know how the next author will take this story further. The story has a promising potential to talk about an issue everyone is trying to address as a global citizen. Will the next author turn the narrative in that direction again? A social commentary or a mythical tale- what are we in for? Chapter 16 holds the answer to this question and I, along with all the readers, wait with great anticipation for the next instalment.
Mishal Faraz, Year 8, The Winchester School