You know that feeling you get when you near the end of a book and your heart breaks a little because you don’t want it to end? I only just finished The Parisian, but I already feel a bit lost, suspended in time, missing the characters, and the country I grew to love all over again through Isabella Hammad’s beautiful prose.
It’s funny, because during the first fifth of the book or so there were areas where I struggled, and wondered if I should just leave it and move on to something else. The thing is, every time I put the book down, Midhat stayed in my mind, following me around, and I couldn’t leave him hanging, could I? I’m so glad I didn’t, because firstly I would have continued to wonder how Midhat’s life played out, and secondly I would have missed the wonders of this book.
The Parisian revolves around Midhat Kamal, the son of a wealthy fabric trader from Nablus in Palestine, and follows him through about 20 years of his life, which coincide with the First World War in Europe, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, and the Arab uprising for independence in the mid 1930’s. The first quarter of the novel takes place in France, where Midhat’s father sends him to study medicine. Midhat falls in love, both with a woman and the country, but he then returns to Nablus alone, where he moves to learn his father’s trade. France never leaves his thoughts, but Nablus is where he stays. The rest of the novel is the story of a country fighting to exist in its own right. Midhat is the leading thread through the story but we also get to know many other characters, all of whom add depth and importance to the story, as well as necessary information towards grasping a concrete overview of the country, the changes, and a history we don’t talk about.
It’s beautifully written, and the setting, the characters, and the plot really interested me. I loved the depth, and the intensity of the descriptions, both visual and psychological. I also feel like I learned so much about a country I already thought I knew so much about.
The Parisian reminded me so much of the 19th century French and Russian literature I studied in depth in my teens and early 20’s. The richness of the character development, and the intensity of the language reminded me that literature is art, and that this book is actually a work of art. There is a level of commitment required from the reader, and if readers aren’t aware of that they may be put off by the story at first. I am glad that I persevered, because The Parisian is a very, very special book.
This is historical fiction, history, and literature at its finest. If you only buy one book in April make sure it is this one.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy!