This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I don’t get a chance to read fiction as often as I would like because work normally means I am doing non-fiction and research. There is a lack of emphasis on good fiction writers these days as though the real novel should disappear just because publishers find them harder to market. These days you have to stumble over the endless number of YA and Vampire stories – which have their place in the market – but a real novel enriches you on so many levels starting with giving other writers pointers to taking the readers places they never imagined and by that I don’t mean some fantasy world but rather into the depths of a character’s soul. The complexity is what makes a Shakespeare character great, the duel dilemma and beautiful word choice a Mailer novel fantastic, the lack of wisdom in passion transforms a Duras novel into a page-turner. I like to quote Richard Burton who once said in an interview “The best characters are broken characters”. A good novelist latches on to those flaws like they are gold.
I’ve really have been looking forward to this novel for a couple of reasons. To begin with I follow Laila Lalami on twitter @lailalalami and I can tell you she is really knowledgeable about the literary scene. This is a thinking writer and it comes through in her book. Secondly, she writes about Morocco where she is from and that is unusual. I like to learn about new places and cultures and this book will not let you down in that department.
The story premise is simple in that it starts with a boatload of refugees trying to make the crossing from Morocco to Spain. Most people will probably be shocked to learn there is a serious refugee problem from North Africa to Europe that rivals the one from Mexico to the U.S. The story then follows what happens to the refugees mostly back in Morocco and through this filter you get a sense of Morocco.
Laila Lalami takes a character at a time, more or less, in each chapter so in that respect the boat is the unifying start off point that then breaks down into individual stories. Unlike what most writers would’ve done, she doesn’t bring them back full-circle to where their plots intersect. In this respect it mirrors life. Take a group of participants in a bad accident on your street, when they leave they won’t cross paths again.
Her descriptions are good and I felt I had a good picture of the characters while I was reading. Like I said, I also felt I was getting a sense of the hardship refugees faced and their Moroccan roots. It was a compelling story that in some respects I wish was longer. The book was only 200 pages.
There was one element lacking for me and maybe I honed in on this because it is a craft issue. I felt like she wasn’t exploring the character’s decisions deep enough. For instance, the topic of wearing a hijab came up with more than one character. For my American readers, a hijab is a scarf worn for religious purposes to cover the woman’s head. While the characters debated the hijab I never felt like I knew what the driving factor was for them to take the hijab or leave it. That decision process was never explored and I really wish it had been for it was pivotal to the characters involved. It also kept racing through my mind that here was a Moroccan woman, writing about Moroccan women dealing with the hijab issue, and she seemed to be avoiding that issue to a certain degree. I found myself wanting to see her educate me, school me, on what that really meant for these female characters.
One thing I did like a lot was her use of Paul Bowles. It gave me a chuckle. Now, I will confess I haven’t read a Bowles novel (although I did see a movie version once) but I do know of him and his ties to Morocco and his role in the literary world. I just like how that seemed to be a connector between Morocco and Western culture and how she toyed with it. However, I suspect, a lot of readers will be hitting google for that one but that is ok. I think it should be a rule that you make the reader learn something on their own when you write. Setting a reader’s curiosity in motion is a good thing.
Overall, I gave this 4 of 5 stars on my Goodreads. It is worth a purchase and your time. She has a nice flair for storytelling that will keep you invested into the tale being told. I intend to read her second book at some point.