Ambitious debut about a group of young Moroccans looking for jobs and a better life.
Lalami sets the stage for her interlinked tales with the section “The Trip,” which introduces Murad, Faten, Aziz and Halima (and her children), all packed together on an inflatable boat illegally crossing the Strait Gibraltar into Spain. Part I: Before explains what made these people risk everything to leave Morocco. Twentysomething Murad was an under-employed tour guide; Faten flunked her college exams; Aziz wanted to make more money and shut up his censorious in-laws; Halima needed to escape an abusive husband. Part II: After revisits the characters, revealing their fates and their transformations following their plunge into the waters 250 meters off the Spanish coast. In the final story, sensitive, educated, English-speaking Murad gets a job as a salesman in a Tangier gift shop. There, he relates a magical, ancient tale to two tourists. First told to Murad by his father, it is a love story of beauty and revenge, providing the author an opportunity to sing her feelings for Islam, its people and its ancient culture. This intense portrait of a gorgeous, once-powerful civilization stands in stark relief to the modern society Lalami skillfully depicts with gritty realism in an omniscient narration. As her characters debate hot-button issues—How much Western culture is too much? Should women wear headscarves?—their individual points of view are presented so evenhandedly that readers are left to wonder which of these opinions are actually held by the Moroccan-born writer, who now lives in Oregon.
Flawed but impressive: This could well be the preamble to an important body of work.