this protest novel takes you to the heart of the action but doesn’t compel

Remember the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999? In Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, he takes us back to those protests from a wide range of viewpoints: a peaceful protester with a dark history, a pot dealer who gets caught up in the protests, a peace loving chief of police, another cop itching to take somebody down, a cop who wants to play by the rules, and a government minister from Sri Lanka. If that sounds like a lot of different viewpoints, you’re right. One of my critiques is that I ultimately never felt invested in any of the characters, perhaps because there were so many.

Two major themes come through: The first is that the moderates sell out their principles while the extremists don’t. One deeply committed peacekeeper remains that way throughout, and one violent cop stays that way. But the moderate cops are the ones who go crazy, and the more moderate protester likewise leaps into retaliation.

The second is that people’s pain is caused by a failure to communicate. A protester son does not have the words to explain to his police chief father what he was doing during the protest. The cops fail to listen. These characters are contrasted with the Sri Lankan minister who, mistakenly apprehended with a bus full of protesters, invites each protester to explain their case to him.

Yapa effectively captured the chaos of the clash. “The rules had changed and the cops appeared to have gone temporarily insane.” Even the most apparently reasonable cops lose it in this story, in this situation. There are no unambiguous good guys on that side.

Still, the book often felt overwritten, as people “misplaced their lives like it was something you could lose among the folds of a newspaper” and the like.

I don’t regret listening to this audiobook, but I’m not going to race out and recommend it to anyone else.

I went through 13 professional reviews, excerpted below. Most reviewers agree that Yapa is excellent at capturing the feel and the chaos of the protests themselves, and most agree that he tends toward overwriting. With — by my categorization — 6 positive, 5 mixed, and 2 negative reviews, they disagree on the value of the sum of the parts.

Bits and pieces

  • On a man who has negotiated multiple loans from the IMF on behalf of his low-income nation: “He had the eyes of a man who has just been told his house burned down with his wife and children inside.”
  • On much of my empirical experience: “The more he saw, the less he understood.”
  • Ironically, towards the end, a government minister from a low-income country decides he will organize other low-income countries to demand that environmental regulations and labor laws be included in the trade negotiations. My sense is that in fact, low-income governments would prefer fewer regulations than rich countries want to impose.
  • There’s one rich exchange where a protestor realizes that the man he is blocking from getting to the WTO meetings is in fact a representative from a low-income country. “We’re out here to protect countries like yours.”

Books mentioned in this book
  • Manufacturing Consent, by Noam Chomsky
  • If They Come In The Morning, by Angela Davis

Excerpts from professional reviews


Truth Dig: “The new year explodes with a fantastic debut novel.”

Rumpus: “Yapa does a heroic job of journeying into the heart of this complex set of events.”

Independent: “Yapa demonstrates admirable pace and control over what could easily have become an unwieldy mess.”

Miami Herald: “Marred only slightly by uneven character development, this furiously paced and contrapuntal literary tour-de-force.”

Publishers Weekly: “A memorable, pulse-pounding literary experience.”

Christian Science Monitor: “Nobody would compare a Seattle protest to a Napoleonic war; but that does not diminish the feat that Yapa achieves with this remarkable, engrossing novel, subjecting history’s police log to the higher law of the writer’s vision.”


New York Times: “Yapa does well with activism’s breathless rush… But the novel’s indisputably good heart is weakened by a tendency toward overwriting.”

The Guardian: “Vibrantly told and jumping from consciousness to consciousness with each chapter, the novel is a crowd scene in 302 pages. … [The] director general of the WTO…monologues on the secret logic of global capitalism with all the subtlety of a cartoon supervillain.”

Star Tribune: “‘Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist’ goes long on theme and language while coming up short on story and characterization, but Sunil Yapa’s voice and ambition leap off the page.”

Sydney Morning Herald: “There are moments of breath-catching prose: blood smelling like “a handful of pennies on a sweaty summer’s day”, a “slat-ribbed stray” but much is muddled as well as Yapa jumps from voice to voice, as the glass shatters and crowbars connect with flesh.”

Irish Times: “Fragmented and fraught as the story it’s trying to tell, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is at its best when asking questions about the effectiveness of public protest. It is the beating heart of the book, the life force that keeps the fiction flowing.”


NPR: “The concept…is a good one, but the execution is, at best, amateurish.”

Kirkus: “American novels about protest have been thin on the ground since the days of Ken Kesey and Edward Abbey. The genre deserves a better revival effort than this.”

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