Article first published as Book Review: ‘The Heroine Next Door’ by Zeena Nackerdien on Blogcritics.
“The Heroine Next Door” by Zeena Nackerdien opens with a Facebook post from Leila Hassan as she looks back on that fateful day in New York City on 9/11. Leila, a South African Muslim woman, is one of the many survivors of the attacks on that day when she lost her beloved fiancée, Khalid, and her world changed forever. Leila is an unemployed scientist, now fifty years old, and the narrator of this story. We follow Leila and her friends as they journey through their lives, encompassing along the way a vast array of topics. From the important work being done in the field of HIV/AIDS research, to the stereotypes and profiling a young Muslim woman endures in the United States and South Africa; this book is full of educational information and knowledge extending over the course of some of the most relevant historical events of the century.
As this is a historical fiction novel, I have to say it was a bit distracting that the author cited her sources at the end of every chapter. While I can certainly appreciate the amount of research that went into the book, it felt quite like I was reading a term paper, not a work of fiction. The pages of sources at the end of each chapter took away from the actual story itself. Instead, I would have liked to have seen perhaps, suggested follow-up reading recommendations listed at the end of the book, as an alternative for those readers wanting to dive deeper into the serious subject matters.
The story itself is a powerful tale. The characters are authentic; I found myself commiserating with some, and rolling my eyes at the behaviors of others; the highlight throughout the story is watching Leila overcome the various obstacles in her life and growing into her own person. The settings, from New York to Cape Town are outlined with charming details, and the cultural differences between the two countries are extensively captured through the author’s meticulous writing style.
Overall, I recommend “The Heroine Next Door” by Zeena Nackerdien as a must-read for all history buffs interested in HIV/AIDS research, the traumatic events of 9/11, and growing up as a Muslim woman in South Africa and the United States.