Samira Ahmed’s ‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’ draws you in with the promise of a dual timeline, one that alternates between Khayyam and Leila. The two women are separated by 200 years and connected by a series of Eugene Delacroix paintings that were based on Lord Byron’s poem ‘The Giaour’. In the 19th century, Leila crossed paths with historical greats like Alexandre Dumas (writer), Eugene Delacroix (painter) and Lord Byron (poet), but history is kind only to the man who writes it. Leila’s voice is forgotten, while the three men use her story for their ‘art’. Ahmed raises often ignored objections against the white man’s ‘Orientalist Fantasy’, a fantasy that considers peoples from the ‘East’ to be savage, the women in need of being freed and the fetishisation of their fashions and culture.
There is no protagonist like the whiney, privileged girl. 17-year-old Khayyam Maquet has immigrant parents, a brown muslim mother and a white (faith isn’t mentioned but probably christian?) father, one from India, the other from France. Khayyam’s voice starts with the signature diaspora woe-is-me, which reintroduces itself at timely intervals, just in case the reader forgets.
Her parents are both academics, and as a family they spend every August vacationing in Paris. Although Khayyam is quick to point out that August is the month when all other Parisians flee the city, because it’s tourist season. Quite unfortunate, indeed. She is also pining for an emotionally unavailable boy, and reeling from an academic blunder that is also her link to Leila. My heart wept with joy at the primacy given to said academic blunder. But it isn’t YA without a love triangle.
Khayyam wants to be an art historian, but her paper on a poorly supported theory of Eugene Delacroix (painter) gifting Alexandre Dumas (writer) one of his paintings from the Giaour series, earns harsh feedback and severely bruises her ego. Khayyam’s chance at redemption comes through Alexandre Dumas, not the previously mentioned stuffy old writer, but his cute college-going (the age gap between the Khayyam and him is concerning) descendant. With young Alexandre Dumas, comes access to family records and archives, and a joint interest in what happened to Leila. Khayyam seeks to prove that at least some parts of her theory are accurate, and young Alexandre Dumas seeks the undiscovered Dumas treasure that would help save his family legacy from good old American capitalism.
Ahmed writes the Gen Z teen girl very well, but there are some gaps, especially when it comes to Instagram references (like Khayyam using a lone #parisisforlovers as a caption and that too, unironically). The emotional pull Khayyam goes through between her ‘pseudo-boyfriend’ Zaid (who she’s known all her life) and an exciting stranger with shared interests (young Alexandre Dumas) is written with nuance. Through Khayyam, Ahmed wonderfully creates what resembles a pros and cons list of sorts on both boys, and concludes this endeavour in disappointment, but without regret, on both fronts.
The title ‘Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know’ makes no attempt to conceal it’s YA (Young Adult) genre, and also leaves a few clues in the text just to make sure (for eg: the use of ‘deadpan’ as a verb). As Khayyam sleuths her way through the book to uncover Leila’s story and amplify her voice, it is ironic that the book title ‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’, is a reference to Lord Byron’s reputation amongst women. Toward the end of the novel, Khayyam struggles with whether to make Leila’s story public or not, she is unsure if Leila would approve of the attention to her story, if it is even morally right to make Leila’s story public for Khayyam’s academic redemption and saving the Dumas legacy. This makes for quality conflict, but sadly few lines are dedicated to it in the novel. In the end, Leila’s story is made public and other than the same vague repetitions of ‘I want Leila’s story to be heard and respected’, no concrete details are given of what happens to it once public.
Disappointments aside, Samira Ahmed’s ‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’ explores the exciting expanse of art history, along with the intersections of race, gender and religion. Add a generous sprinkling of fail-proof YA tropes, and you have got a great book.