Review: The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

Published by The Independent April 12, 2019

You could call Isabella Hammad’s 550-page novel a sprawling, sweeping historical epic. It does chart a turbulent period of Palestinian history, from the end of the Ottoman empire and the First World War, through British rule and mass immigration of Jews as the Second World War looms.

But this is also a highly personal story, based on Hammad’s own great-grandfather. The Parisian of the title is Midhat, whom we meet as a young man travelling to Montpellier and Paris to train as a doctor, and journey with through to middle age, marriage and familial duty at his family’s home town of Nablus in Palestine.

Throughout, Hammad has an exquisite control on her subject: this is precise writing, measured, and careful. It doesn’t sprawl; it pins. And it doesn’t get swept up in generalisations or making characters mouthpieces for the march of history; rather, her detail makes you feel the homes and cities she takes us to, and the people that inhabit them, are as multifaceted and mysterious as those of real life. Hammad’s presentation of a politically contentious time, the after-effects of which are still felt today, is also complex and demandingly layered – as it should be.

All of which would be an achievement for any novelist, but for a debut by a 27-year-old, it’s quite remarkable. The Parisian is not flashy or splashy: indeed, at times it can feel too staid, taking its time to tell the story with a rather unfashionable 19th-century realism. But there’s a tremendous assurance to it; you do really believe this story, these people.

The Parisian is also – crucially, thankfully – a love story. In Montpellier, the graceful Midhat falls for Jeanette, the daughter of his host. This early section is utterly lovely in its tracing of the trembling anticipation, tenderness and insecurity of a first romantic encounter, and occasional moments of high emotional intensity crash through the otherwise even pacing, leaving you clutching your own heart. The desire for Midhat and Jeannette to be together veins painfully through the rest of the book.

Hammad’s real concern, however, is how Midhat is torn between two cultures: “He was always marked by his difference.” The imprint of imperialism may trouble individual identity as much as national identity. In France, Midhat brutally realises that he will always seen as the outsider, the other. The less “civilised”. Yet in his own culture, his European sheen makes him extra refined. The fact that he’s adopted the ways of a country that is a colonial oppressor in their region becomes prickly, however. And having fallen in love with France’s personal and intellectual freedoms, Midhat also struggles against the more rigid, prescribed familial and cultural expectations in Palestine.

The Parisian considers how a preoccupation with the self occurs even in the most dramatic of historical occasions: while his country convulses, Midhat undergoes his own internal revolt. He must work out who he is, come to terms with the shape and limits of his life. The novel also allows a wistful look at how life rarely works out as we hope, how the past may cloud and colour the present. Time is even more difficult to traverse than geographical distance. And there’s no going back.

Much of the pleasure of the book is to be found in Hammad’s often strikingly clear, original imagery: umbrellas “sprouted” in the rain and orange zest “spat at his dust-covered hands”; women in a steam bath reveal fat that “draped down over the hips in thick rolls like layers of cream”. She also provides many canny shifts in focus, from a cinematic, establishing wide-shots of a location, deftly sketched, to zooming in on the tiniest, most intimate detail (I loved the description of a hole in a petticoat “with its little harp of exposed fibres”). It is Hammad’s sustaining of both perspectives, the minutiae that make up an individual life and the macro political upheavals that change a country forever, that makes The Parisian so impressive.

The Parisian is published by Jonathan Cape, £14.99

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