We’re into Week 5 of the Write a Novel Challenge by WhichSchoolAdvisor.com and SchoolsCompared.com and if you’re a reader who has followed the story since the beginning, you now know that this is one novel that you will read to the end. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we officially have a page turner- an unputdownable bestseller!
In Chapter 20, we found out that the “argyle scarf guy” who appears out of nowhere when Neina is in a perilous situation is actually the scarecrow that Neina made with her brothers when she was a little girl. This scarecrow has come to life and is, for some reason, taking up the role of Neina’s protector and guide. The chapter ended with him saying these words to Neina:
“Just make sure that when it all comes back, you don’t forget the little girl in the fields. The little girl who would have changed the world instead of letting it change her”.
Cryptic as they sound but these words ended Week 4 on an optimistic note. Now let’s delve right into Week 5!
Chapter 21 is written by Solenn Anne Le Guyon, Year 13, of The British International School Abu Dhabi. The chapter is a flashback into Neina’s childhood and gives us some answers as to how Neina’s mother disappeared, as has been hinted at in the earlier chapters.
We are taken back to the childhood home of Neina’s which always evokes a sense of comfort and calm- spring air, fresh flowers, mellow sun, blue sky, water lilies... it’s a pretty picture. When the chapter opens, we see Neina’s father tinkering in the garage. Neina and her brother Ryder are rowing a boat in a little pond in their garden as their mother watches from the porch. The two children insist that their mother joins them on the small boat. She resists at first but then gives in. Neina and Ryder start rocking the boat as their mother tries to hold on to keep herself balanced and steady. This is when things take an unfortunate turn. The boat capsizes and they’re all thrown into the cold, shallow water. Neina is pulled out by Ryder. They look for their mother and to their shock “see a red cloud blooming from under the water lilies”.
As they try to pull her out, their father joins them. Neina’s mother is pulled out but blood is oozing out from the back of her head. She’s admitted in the hospital where she stays in a comatose state for two months. Being wheeled away in the ambulance was the last time Neina saw her mother for she was reluctant to go to the hospital and see her in that state. It is during this time that Neina’s father starts drinking more often. Then, one day, Neina’s mother just disappears - “she vanished without a trace”, and no one could figure out what really happened.
This incident propelled Neina to work relentlessly, to make up for what she had done. “Neina had focused on being the best, and proving to everyone that the dark-skinned girl with the mom who had vanished could succeed. She’d followed the rules, trying to ensure she’d never hurt anyone ever again”.
Chapter 22 has been penned by Philip Dackiw, Year 10, of Cranleigh Abu Dhabi. As Neina comes out of her trance, she’s once again back where we saw her at the end of chapter 20, with the “argyle scarf guy” amid the burst of gold and yellow hues surrounding them. She realizes that she’s in a barren land with never ending sand dunes and comforting gusts of wind. She sees a mysterious figure in the horizon and starts following it. Her troubles are far from being resolved but a sense of calm transcends over her.
“Despite these unanswered questions, a calmness settled over Neina. Here she allowed her thoughts to drift and recollect; everything appearing clearer, more centered, following the mayhem and disorder of her previous experiences.”
She follows the figure till they reach their sought-after destination. Realisation dawns upon Neina that the figure is none other than her scarecrow, and she remembers the name she gave it to it: Janus! Janus gives her a hot meal, the much-needed sustenance she needed after all that she’s been through. As a reader, I see this as a symbolic restoration of Neina’s soul. We finally see her having some sort of respite after being mercilessly chased down from one distorted reality to another.
Janus introduces Neina to this new place. He calls it Tutumni:
“The Tutumni. As you previously may have noticed, this region is one of relative safety, which will protect you from any occurrences beyond its reach. Do not, however, let this deter you from your real purpose, and only access it when in great peril.”
So this is what this place is, a safe haven. As the dark of the night creeps in, Neina finds herself unable to sleep. She wonders at the dichotomy between imagination and reality-
“the prospect that all these events were occurring in her mind, a mind which was unable to distinguish reality from imagination.”
And the chapter concludes. In the author’s note, Philip says that in this chapter he endeavoured to “provide a moment of tranquility and a harbor of safety for Neina to return to whenever in mortal danger.” This chapter is exactly that. Thank you, Philip!
Chapter 23 has been written by Jude Hasanin, Year 9, of Amity International Abu Dhabi.
Neina realizes that the tranquility and calm she feels around her actually comes from within her:
“She held the stars and galaxies in her eyes that spoke of a thousand constellations. And oh, how her eyes glistened of rich pools of honey to match her long, wild, golden locks, of which she wore as her crown of legacy. She was the girl made of stars. She was powerful.”
But this moment of Neina realizing her own worth, the power within her, is short lived. All of a sudden, she becomes conscious of a butterfly hovering over her, a butterfly with a broken wing. And once again, a sense of gloom envelopes her. “She was no longer the epitome of a warrior, but merely a scared girl with broken wings.” She finds herself in a room full of broken mirrors with her reflections staring at her: The doe eyed girl with straight, shiny, perfect hair.
She finds herself sobbing helplessly as she once again comes face to face with her vicious adversary, Isla! Isla tells her: “I am you. I am what you’ll become.”
To this, Neina retorts: “I’ll never become what you are, whatever you are. GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”
Isla tells Neina that no matter what, she will always be on her mind. The longing for platinum blonde hair and milky white skin and the fear of rejection based on her looks would never loosen its grip on Neina’s mind. Neina’s reply to this is strong and these words could be some of the most consequential and powerful ones used in the novel till now-
“You are neither who I am, nor who I will become. You are the illusion I failed to recognise. You are the reason my family were never at peace. It is you that represents the harsh reality of society. You’ve always made me feel that I was not good enough and not worthy of feeling beautiful. All this time, I felt the need to change my appearance to satisfy your needs. Well let me tell you what I think: you are nothing but an assassin of uniqueness and diversity. I don’t have to be white, blonde and slim to feel worthy because I am beautiful, I am exceptional, I am powerful. I am black. I am .... the girl made of stars...”
That’s the longest quote that I’ve used in any of my reviews till now, but I just had to! They are potent words and breathe fresh air into the story. Once again we see the narrative steering towards a social commentary about a very topical issue; the discrimination faced by hundreds of thousands of people based on the colour of their skin.
Isla attempts to throttle Neina and Neina fights back and that’s how the chapter ends.
Jacob Sims, Year 12, of Dubai English Speaking College takes the story further in Chapter 24. The chapter opens with Neina finding a shard of ice and giving a mighty blow to Isla, leaving her wounded and “writhing and wailing” in excruciating pain.
Neina starts running again but this time not out of fear but with a sense of freedom. Suddenly, she finds herself suspended in a limbo and once this state wears off, she lands in a lush grassland. Despite being tired and exhausted to the core of her being, she treks forward until she halts before three majestic oak trees. Each of these trees have a figure hanging in a fatal suspension- hanging lifeless and supine with nooses around their necks are Freya, Ryder and Isla!
Before Neina can recover from the shock she realizes that she is not alone. She finds herself in the company of a being, a woman with “deep emerald skin matching the acres of grass that spanned the field beneath them. She seemed to be entirely made of grass and leaves, with countless butterflies fluttering around the crown of lilies that sat on her head.”
This figure evokes a sense of déjà vu as she gives Neina a riddle to decode just like Neina had to in the Mors world. The answer to that riddle was “Pride”, so what could it be that Neina was looking at this time? After systematically dismantling the riddle she realizes that she is now in the company of “Envy”, another of the seven deadly sins. This brings in the poignant realization that the three figures hanging from the trees: Freya, Ryder and Isla- were all envied by Neina for varied reasons.
The figure also tells Neina that she has ruled over Neina ever since “that day in May”. Chagrined, Neina realizes that it was on a day in May that her mother had had that accident in the pond and since that day Neina had harboured the feelings of envy while trying to match the traits of others. As this new revelation dawns on her, Neina tells the figure:
“You’re envy. And you don’t rule over me anymore.”
The chapter ends with the green land opening up and swallowing Neina.
Chapter 25 has been written by Nandini Nambia, Year 10, of Hartland International School. The chapter opens with Neina plummeting through a vortex but she’s not terrified, instead finding a peaceful rhythm in the tossing and turning through the fall.
Once she lands, she discovers that she’s once again standing before the golden gates of the palace she saw when she entered the Mors World for the first time. But this time she’s greeted by a smiling gatekeeper who welcomes her inside.
Neina’s mind is swept with “memories of the challenges that she had endured to seek entry into the magnificent castle. The imposing structure towered over her, making her feel small and insignificant. She realized how little she was, compared to the vast, wide world and her contributions could hardly make an iota of difference”.
This could be a symbolic expression of how inadequate and inconsequential Neina feels before the challenges of the world. She realizes that, amid chasing her dreams, she never took the time to relax and take in the beauty of the world around her.
Her thoughts are broken by a “blood curdling scream” and she finds herself all alone in this strange world, the gatekeeper has disappeared, and time is ticking away.
And the chapter ends.
This week’s writing has been exciting! It is really interesting to note how in Chapter 23, Neina tells Isla to get out of her “head”. So could the entire story really be happening inside Neina’s head? Is it an internal struggle we are witnessing in the form of the most explicit imageries and extended metaphors? This prospect is promising to say the least.
Future authors could really delve deeper into this. They’ve got two immensely intriguing, absorbing prospects to build on: ethnicity based discrimination and the debilitating effects it can have on the minds of individuals. This could be a gripping prompt given the fact that mental health and well-being are such pivotal issues in today’s world.
A note to future authors: All the best! I can sense a bestseller building up. Can’t wait to see how you shape this as a story which will chronicle some real pressing issues of our times. This novel will be a testimony to how aware our generation is, the melting point of the best literary minds in the country! Do I sound absolutely excited? That’s because I am! I can’t wait for the next chapter.
Note to self: While we have to wait for chapter 26 on Sunday, utilise the weekend by counting all the blood curdling screams and the ground-slipping-under-feet since chapter 1!
By Mishal Faraz, Year 8, The Winchester School