A tip: the jacket synopsis for Hammad’s The Parisian has almost nothing to do with what the book is about. It promises a love story set against World War One. But that’s only the first 200 pages of a 575-page book. From there, romance becomes record as the protagonist, an idealist for whom reality is an impossible burden, bears witness to twenty interwar years and the British Mandate in Palestine. The novel itself mirrors the internal life of its hero: like a confused co-ed, it’s sexually fraught but not sexy; unsure how to define itself in a sea of shifting mores. Though such confusion is fine for a collegiate, it hinders the book.
On such a large canvas, character or style must draw the reader’s eye, and plot should feel urgent. Hammad’s writing is stylistically bland (others have called it restrained), and her waffling between historiography and drama prevents her from fleshing out any characters. Concerning plot, she mistakes historical urgency for tension that’s intrinsic to the text: a character’s fear at the prospect of a Jewish state in Palestine cannot inspire the same uncertainty in a reader, who knows how history will turn out. But the density of the text occasionally gives way to sunny flashes of insight. “Stories of longing were the only stories,” Hammad writes – that’s certainly what this novel is.
Words: Sophie Stein