An extravagantly good alternate-universe Horatio Alger story for the teeming billions, affirming all that’s right—and wrong—with economic globalization.
“The whites of your eyes are yellow,” writes Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 2007, etc.), “a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus affecting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum.” The “you” in question is the unnamed protagonist, addressed throughout, unusually, in the second person through the fictive frame of a self-help book that is fairly drenched in irony. But, like Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke (2000), there’s more than a little of the picaresque in this bildungsroman. As our anonymous hero comes of age and goes well beyond majority, he confronts the challenges not only of chasing out the hep E virus, but also of finding love, work and satisfaction in life—the stuff of everyday life everywhere. The younger subject’s family lives in an overcrowded, urban slum in some unnamed South Asian nation—perhaps, to judge by a few internal clues, the author’s native Pakistan, though he is careful not to specify—where his father’s small salary as a cook (“he is not a man obsessed with the freshness or quality of his ingredients”) is at least enough to fend off the starvation so many of their neighbors endure. The family, like many of the people our hero will meet, is displaced from the countryside, having followed an early lesson of the vade mecum: “Moving to the city is the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia.” Indeed, he attains material success, but he's always just out of reach of the true love of his life—and if anything else, this exceptionally well-written novel is not about the Hobbesian grasping and clawing of first impression, but about the enduring power of family, love and dreams.
Another great success for Hamid and another illustration of how richly the colonial margins are feeding the core of literature in English.