The Parisian, or al-Barisi, by Isabella Hammad



Brief review: Stunning book, compelling protagonist, historical fiction in a time and place that is less familiar. Ultimately a deeply human story written in beautiful, masterful prose.
Find the Parisian in our catalog here
Read it on Hoopla here
Read it on Libby/OverDrive here

And… the longer review:

This novel takes place in two places: France and Palestine. However, it really takes place singly in the life and mind of our protagonist, Midhat Kamal. We begin as Midhat leaves Nablus (“a town north of Jerusalem, south of Damascus”) for France to study medicine at The University of Montpellier. There he stays with the Molineau family, comprising Doctor Molineau and his daughter, Jeannette.

We follow Midhat’s relationships (especially with Jeannette – which is a complicated and mysterious one) and his trajectory at first the University and then the Sorbonne in Paris until he returns to Nablus to step into his father’s business in textiles and clothing.

The remainder, and bulk, of the novel takes place in Nablus, where the history of “Greater Syria” and Palestine is unfolding. While historical fiction often teaches us a lot about a time and/or place that we aren’t very familiar with, this book does it all from the particular point of view, and experience of, Midhat — an outsider no matter where he is. So, this “view” of historical events is both participant and observer.

That is the frame of the story — but the driving force of this sad, beautiful, human story is Midhat’s inner life and interaction with the people and world around him. He is a sympathetic, flawed character who never quite finds a home. Against the backdrop of both Arab and Jewish struggles to establish a territorial home under outside machinations of large powers (France, Britain, Turkey, the Ottoman Empire), we still experience everything from the personal instead of the political.

The writing is exceptionally beautiful and masterly, in some places almost more like being immersed in a painting than a novel. Strikingly, this is the author’s first novel – she is 19! [for those Top Gear fans, her father is Richard Hammond, long time co-host of that program.] Our sympathies (not surprisingly) lie with those Arabs who live in Nablus (what many characters think of as Greater Syria), but given the deeply personal point of view of a man who isn’t blantantly political, the reader (ie: me) doesn’t necessarily feel strongly partisan. More so, there is a loneliness of not quite belonging in the way that others do, that seems far beyond the author’s years.

Find the Parisian in our catalog here
Read it on Hoopla here
Read it on Libby/OverDrive here

Author photo: (c) Kathy Coulter
Winner of The Plimpton Prize, O. Henry Prize, and National Book Award “5 under 35” Honoree.

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