Jay Watson is in eleventh grade in a large, suburban Canada high school. He is a rising star on the football team, a pretty good student, and is liked by most people who know him. He and his family are European-Caucasian Christians.
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Haroon Badawi is a quiet, very bright student, and is in eleventh grade in a large, suburban Canada high school. He is on a school quiz team that might be headed for regional competition. Haroon and his family are Muslim, and his grandparents emigrated from Afghanistan.
Jay and Haroon know of each other, but do not know each other. They attend the same high school, but so do two thousand other students, and there are many different groups or cliques, based on ethnicity, race, habits, music, style of dress, and hobbies.
While the different groups in this school do not interact much, things keep humming along smoothly, in general. That is, that was the status until the day of the bomb threat and the evacuation of the school, which turned out to not be just be a stupid adolescent prank, but one small aspect of an Al-Qaeda organized terror attack, that was squelched before it got off the ground.
The tension level in the school rises dramatically, and the school officials, along with the police, try to calm things down, but their efforts meet with mixed results, and sometimes backfire. Racial and ethnic and religious slurs increase, both in spoken and spray-painted form, and cruel pranks become much more common. Is this all headed to some type of ugly confrontation or violent explosion? Who can do what to avert a looming disaster?
The viewpoint in the chapters alternates between Jay Watson and Haroon Badawi. Each boy will face many choices, large and small, that could add up to each playing a role in either resolving the mounting crisis, or adding more fuel to the fire. As the story progresses, the reader learns about the Watson and Badawi families, as both try to pursue happiness, justice, and prosperity, and to succeed in Western culture.
I think this is a well-written book. I have read reviews and comments that suggest that Haroon's family was not presented in a way that would fit the reality of an Afghan Muslim family living in suburban Canada. I do not know enough about Afghan culture or the religion of Islam to have a strong opinion about that issue, but I have worked, as a psychologist, for years, mainly with adolescents, and the behavior of both protagonists is very typical of adolescent behavior. It is also made clear in the book that, while the Badawi family does cherish its heritage and religious beliefs, they are also very comfortable with, and eager, to adapt to Western culture.
As to the more technical aspects of the writing, the flow and pace of the book are quite good, and the authors clearly know how to write a good, compelling, well-constructed story. This was not an easy book to put down, as the story kept moving and the tension kept building. I feel that the resolution of the story was realistic, given the circumstances stated.
I do not view this book as an educational experience on culture and religion, but as a work of fiction that does talk about modern adolescent life and the peer issues that contemporary teens have to face. This is especially true if an adolescent attends a school that has a social milieu that includes many religious and racial and cultural groups. However, even a school that is relatively homogeneous in regards to race, culture, and religion, teens create their own subgroups as a way to experiment with, and eventually create, a sense of individual identity. Once those subgroups are formed, the social politics, including alliances, status hierarchies, and conflicts, will develop. Bifocal uses an unusual example to explore very common social behavior patterns, and it does this well.
Hardcover: 240 pages (my paperback had 272 pages)
Publisher: Fitzhenry and Whiteside; 1 edition (September 18, 2007)