An assured debut novel that sets the life of one man against the tumultuous backdrop of Palestine in the waning years of British occupation.
Midhat Kamal has been thoroughly steeped in French culture—writes Hammad, he “knew the names of his internal organs as ‘le poumon’ and ‘le coeur’ and ‘le cerveau’ and ‘l’encéphale’ ”—but is never at home in his dreamed-of France, where he has come from his home in Nablus to study medicine. His French isn’t quite perfect, not at first, which occasions an odd thought: “What if, since by the same token one could not afford ambiguity, everything also became more direct?” Things happen directly enough that he’s soon enfolded in various dramas acted out by the good people of Montpellier. Midhat is a philosophically inclined soul who, as his yearned-for Jeannette remarks, is wont “to rely on what other people have said” in the countless books he’s read. Like Zhivago, he is aware of events but somehow apart from them. When he returns to Nablus at a time when European Jews are heeding Herzl’s call and moving to Palestine, he finds the city divided not just by the alignments of social class, but also by a new politics: “We must resist all of the Jews,” insists a neighbor of Midhat’s, advocating a militant solution that others think should be directed at the British colonizers. Hammad sometimes drifts into the didactic in outlining an exceedingly complex history, but she does so with a poet’s eye for detail, writing, for instance, of Nablus’ upper-class women, who “grow fat among cushions and divert their vigour into childbirth and playing music, and siphon what remained into promulgating rumors about their rivals." The years pass, and Midhat weathers change, illness, madness, and a declining command of French, seeking and finding love and family: At the end, he announces, “When I look at my life…I see a whole list of mistakes. Lovely, beautiful mistakes. I wouldn’t change them.”
Closely observed and elegantly written: an overstuffed story that embraces decades and a large cast of characters without longueurs.