Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits - a useful book, a mediocre novel

I picked one of the Moroccan books recommended to me, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami, and jumped in. I read the book all at once, over about two hours, which suggests a certain enthusiasm. In fact, in some ways it's quite a poor book, while in others it was just what I wanted.

One reason I zipped through the 195 pages so quickly is that the pages are unusually small. Another is that, I now see, the writing level is much easier than most books I read. Eight grade level, maybe? In a blurb, Junot Díaz calls the prose "spare" and "elegant."* I would use somewhat different words. Plain, simple. There are a few nicer touches, but not many. Picked at random (p.107):

"Murad sat down on the divan. His eyes were on the TV, but his mind wandered. Lamya was moving on with her life - she had a job and now she was getting married." Etc. Another word comes to mind - dull.

The plain prose unfortunately extends to the voices. Different chapters feature different characters. All of the men sound the same. All of the women sound the same. The women do sound different than the men, which is good. But, with flat prose like this, how could it be otherwise? What room does the writer have to differentiate her characters?

Now the good. The novel begins on a tiny boat - illegal immigrants from Morocco, on their way to Spain. We move back to find out how four of those immigrants got on that boat. Then we move forward to see what happened to them afterwards. Now, here's a lot of room for a writer. Lalami creates characters from many backgrounds - a disaffected intellectual, an abused wife, a restless husband, a mildly corrupt education administrator.

Lalami is clever with the structure. In the first "before" story, the woman who immigrates is actually a minor character. But through the story of a family she knows, we learn everything we need about why she immigrates. In the "after" section, we get her story directly.

This variety is the heart of the book. Lots of different Moroccans in lots of different situations. I wish that the stories were told in a more interesting way, and that the characters had more individuality. But as a quick tour of Morocco, it was perfect, efficient, full of information. Some of it may be wrong - I'll test it against my own experience, and against other books - but the novel gives me a lot to work with. I would have a hard time recommending the book to anyone not specifically interested in the subject. For me, it was time well spent. So thanks, Rohan!

* The blurb lowers my opinion of Junot Díaz. I have not read him, and am now less likely to do so. A writer interested in good writing would not use so many clichés, even while blurbing his friend's book.


  1. It's interesting that Diaz would praise writing that is so "spare" when the language in his books is so rich and complex. If you can separate his comments from his writing at all, I think it's worth it. I didn't expect to like his book, but I am a big fan of Oscar Wao.

  2. Thanks for the helpful review.

    Was the book, _Laila Lalami's Hope..._ translated into English?

  3. Nicole. Good to hear. I haven't read Oscar Wao, but it sounded pretty good to me. One thing I have learned just over the last couple of years is how much logrolling there is in the world of literary fiction. Díaz and Lalami are friends, he commented on her manuscript, etc. One more reason to discount, or ignore, the blurbs.

    Fred - good point. I was going to mention that but forgot. Lalami's novel was written in English. So no translation.

  4. Just wondering if the style problem could be a translation problem. Sometimes a translator can kill or save a book.

  5. I'm afraid that, in this case, the problems with the prose are all the fault of the author.

  6. I generally ignore writers' praise or condemnation of other writers.

    Perhaps Diaz' reference to "spare" language is a way of being honest and yet not condemnatory, considering his own style, which Nicole said was quite the opposite.

  7. Thanks, Tom, for referring me to your post.
    From what little I read of the book I got the impression it's a bit dull but full of life stories and certainly more for people intersted in Morocco thatn for the general reader.
    I'm off now. In a few hours I'll already be eating Tajine de poulet et citron.