One of the great movements of the human race, the modern flood of migration from Africa to Europe, is usually told in raw numbers: x number of bodies washed up on a Spanish beach, y number of illegal entrants found on a ship, z number of undocumented cleaners found at the British Home Office. All too rarely are the human stories behind these perilous journeys told.
That's what Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, a collection of linked short stories, of "befores" and "afters", does. Its central characters are not, however, journeying heroines and heroes, but rather dissatisfied, restless beings. Their societies might be inadequate, but then so, too, are they. They dither, they hesitate, they take obviously false paths. So they are all too human.
The four meet in the initial story, "The Trip", which is, of course, the perilous journey in a flimsy, overloaded inflatable boat from Morocco to Spain. The narrator is Murad, a sometime Moroccan tourist guide who is focused on the material benefits of Europe – the car, the house, the fancy watch he might one day be able to buy. There's also a sullen Islamist woman, Faten; Halima, the beaten victim of a drunken husband with her three children; and, Aziz, the academic failure wiith a mechanic's training (vital as it turns out) making his second attempt at the journey.
Their stories are told from a variety of perspectives. So we learn initially about Faten only through the eyes of the bureaucrat father of her "best friend", Larbi, who is horrified by her effect on his previously Westernised daughter.
The stories unfold casually, tangentially, with sometimes rather awkward exposition:
The day after Maati beat her with an extension cord, Halima Bouhamsa packed up some clothes and took the bus to her mother's house in Sisi Beliout, near the old medina in Casablanca. The cord had left bubbly welts on her arms and face, and she couldn't hide them under her housedress. She arrived at the door of the studio apartment, a packet of La Menara tea in her hand as an offering, and stood for a moment, hesitant. Her mother wouldn't be happy to see her, but she couldn't think of anywhere else to go. She knocked.
Again?" said her mother, Fatiha.
Laila Lalami has an eye for detail, for taste and smell and colour, but the form just doesn't feel quite right, quite big enough, for the subject matter. The tricksy approaches and tangential angles are more writing school exercise than the sweeping treatment the subject demands. This is a great subject, and these are interesting footnotes in it, but together they don't quite make a whole text.
I was left thinking that while I'd enjoyed reading Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, and developed affection and sympathy for its characters, it was a very light treatment of a very big subject, a subject that needs some great, detailed, sweeping text, something like Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. This short read is the author's first book; I hope for the next she'll try to work on a grander scale.
The author of Hope blogs at Moorish Girl.