Taking the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris as her first novel’s starting point, veteran foreign correspondent Steavenson (Circling the Square: Stories from the Egyptian Revolution, 2015, etc.) plunges her characters into the complexities of the post–9/11 world.
Like her creator, Kit is a Western journalist who has covered international messes from Baghdad and Beirut to a Greek port overwhelmed by refugees. She marries and then divorces Ahmed, an Iraqi who leaves her with his son from a previous marriage. She also acquires an ambivalent relationship to Islam, to which she converted despite the fact that her husband was an avowed atheist. Although Kit writes an article presenting the point of view of an Islamic fundamentalist, with whom she develops a tentative friendship, terrorist abductions of journalists and militant protests against cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad turn her into a ranting critic of Islam as the enemy of Western tolerance and diversity. It’s hard to discern what the author thinks of Kit’s attitude, since the book is written in the first person; Steavenson may be agreeing with her character or portraying her as bigoted—or a bit of both—when Kit storms, “Muslims who were born and grew up in Europe are now violently rejecting its values, while at the same time their fellow Muslims are appealing to those values to let them in.” Steavenson masterfully evokes Kit’s natural habitat: a rootless, cosmopolitan, polyglot world peopled by footloose, cynical, yet covertly committed journalists and diplomats. Among the vividly rendered secondary characters are her childhood friend Zorro, a substance-abusing photojournalist; Rousse, a painter/illustrator for Charlie Hebdo; and her “godfathers” Alexandre and Jean, friends of her journalist father whose long-ago disappearance haunts her. The coordinated attacks of November 2015 form the novel’s climax, with Kit on the scene at the Bataclan theater and her terrified adopted son frantically texting her, “Where are you?” “If you have gone to journalist [I'll] never speak to you again.” Kit’s turbulent relationship with her son, “two mongrel outcasts brought together by fate,” is one of the finest things in this very fine novel.
Deeply informed by the author’s experiences as a journalist but triumphantly transmuted into intelligent and heartfelt fiction.