Laila Lalami

"Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUN 4, 2006)

At one point in the absorbing novel, one of the protagonists Murad Idrissi in Morocco looks across Strait of Gibraltar to Spain: "In the distance, car lights from the Spanish side looked like so many lighthouses, beacons that warned visitors to keep out." Yet Murad finds those very lights drawing him in -- passage to Spain, the promised land for him and many other desperate Moroccans -- would be his redemption, or so Murad would like to believe.

And so it is that Murad, along with a couple dozen others, makes a precarious ride on a raft to Spain from Morocco. Among his fellow passengers are teenaged Faten, Halima, a mother of three, and Aziz, a married but unemployed young man who tries to make a new life in Spain.

This short novel starts off with the ride through the choppy waters of the Mediterranean. The smuggler who captains the ship however, drops off the passengers a good distance away from the beach leaving them to find their way ashore. Lalami does not tell us which ones made it to the promised land.

Instead, the second part of the novel moves backward, tracing the characters lives back before they make the decision to leave. Each chapter serves as a short story weaving a tale about one character. The storytelling device works wonderfully especially because Lalami's prose is among the most crisp and riveting in contemporary fiction in a long time. Using just a few words, she gives us telling glimpses into the desperate lives of the novel's characters.

Aziz Ammor, who is married to Zohra, whiles away his time with a close friend Lachen who does not want him to emigrate. Still Aziz cannot bear the shame of joblessness: "He imagined that one day he would be like them, have a car and a place to go, instead of sitting idle at a coffee shop while his wife was at work."

Murad is trying to find a better job other than one of a tourist guide helping visitors to Morocco.

Halima Bouhamsa, a victim of domestic violence, finds a cleaning job in Casablanca, but needs to move on for the sake of her three children.

Through Lalami's writing, the characters come to life dramatically within the pages. Aziz, towards the end of the novel, remembers a stark and gripping folk tale involving a rug weaver Ghomari and his beloved, Jenara. The story is narrated in just a few paragraphs but is a classic example of a well-knit story told in the old traditions like the stories in the Arabian nights.

In her debut novel, Lalami uses precisely such expert story-telling skills and time-honored traditions to weave a new kind of story. In her telling the characters might have changed a little, but the stark brutality of their lives continues to work its magic on the reader. The deeper discussion that Lalami's prose so elegantly stirs is just how separate entire worlds can be. It is a treat to be afforded a glimpse into Murad Idrissi's world as he stares across the Strait of Gibraltar and wonders just "how fourteen kilometers could separate not just two countries but two universes." In the current U.S. political climate, such discussions are even more meaningful because they are all the more timely and relevant.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 46 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits at author's website

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About the Author:

Laila LalamiLaila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She earned her B.A. in English from Universite Mohammed V in Rabat, her M.A. from University College, London, and her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian, The Nation and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts grant and a Fulbright Fellowship.

She is also the editor of the literary blog, which she begin while living in Los Angeles, California. She now lives in Portland, Oregon. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014