Posted by: Corri van de Stege | July 7, 2008

A book review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Moshin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

(This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007).

This was one of the books I took with me on holiday but did not manage to read.  However, once I picked it up on Sunday I could not put it down, I had to read till the end, even if in between I was as much glued to the Wimbledon Men’s Final.  All in all it was quite an overwhelming Sunday.  I had to pick up the book again, after that match was finished, and continued to listen to the story as if someone was telling it directly to me and I could not walk away.  I was spellbound.  So I did not go to sleep until very late….

 

The book’s opening paragraph sets the scene of the narrative: an evening in Lahore, the central market place to be precise and the main character, Changez, relates to a companion, someone he happens to meet in a small eating house or establishment, it seems, an American, how he came to live in America and then decided to return to Pakistan after 9/11.

Changez was a student at Princeton University, where he was sent by his parents.  They are an impoverished but middle class family.  At the end of his studies he is selected for a post with Underwood Sampson, a valuation firm, where, once taken on ‘after two or three years as an analyst, one was virtually guaranteed admission to Harvard Business School.’  Changez is top of the class and also top of the recruits taken on by Underwood Sampson (US…).

In between relating to his invisible companion what happened, Changez makes comments on what happens around them, the girls walking in jeans ‘speckled with paint’ because they are from the Arts College, and how beautiful one of them is which then enables him to relate how he met Erica, the girl he loved back in America.  Before starting his work with US he joins a group of Princetonians who had decided to holiday in Greece and one of the group is Erica.  They clearly feel attracted to each other.

Already in the first page or so of the book we get the sense of Changez being someone who is never quite in the right place, he stands out, he is clever, not one of the Ivy group as he is not rich, he likes to be alone, as does Erica and once he has started to work for US he and Wainwright, another new recruit who becomes his friend, ‘stand out’.  Driving to the company annual summer party Changez and Wainwright are allocated seats with Jim, the managing director as well as some other associates. 

…he said: ‘You’re a watchful guy.  You know where that comes from?’  I shook my head.  ‘It comes from feeling out of place,’ he said.  ‘Believe me, I know.’

Erica is the daughter of well-to-do Americans, a father who is a senior business partner and they live in the centre of Manhattan.  Erica begins to invite Changez around and tells about her childhood friend Chris who died of cancer. 

The book carries on in this gentle conversational telling voice, that’s Changez’.   We learn that he is in Manila on a business trip when the twin towers come down and how to his own surprise he feels a sense of pleasure, not at the victims, but at the fact that America is visibly brought to her knees.  He is shocked by his own reaction, yet the reaction seems somehow vindicated when on his return to America he is separated from his colleagues as the only non-American and searched and asked questions which firmly establish him as the outsider.

I’m not going to give away the story and unfolding of events, or what happens between Changez and Erica and between him and his work colleagues; or why the next assignment goes wrong.  It would be spoiling it for you – and I’d like you to read this story.  The narrative is wonderfully sustained and I could not put it down until the very shock at the end, the realisation of what is going to happen.

 

And now?  Now I’m going to think about my own writing for a bit, make some notes, listen to my own voice.  So I’m going to be quiet for a day or so, you may be pleased to hear.

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Responses

  1. I’ve heard so many good reviews of this one. It must be quite the extraordinary book!

  2. I confess I’ve been avoiding this- maybe I should give it a try.

    The fianl was gripping, wasn’t it? I still can’t belive Nadal won!

  3. Lovely review, and now another book on my list.
    Happy writing.

  4. Andi: it is, it is… worth getting hold of
    adevotedreader: give it a try, it’s like the federer nadal match: first I did not want to watch because I wanted to read and do other things and then, once I started watching I could not tear myself away! I honestly was not sure who I wanted to win: they are such different characters and players!
    Andi: yes, onto it tonight again 🙂

  5. I read this book last year. I found it compelling to read. Could not put it down. BUT, it was also a deeply disturbing read.

  6. annieelf: yes, it raises so many questions and leaves you wondering what your own answers are. The end is definitely uncanny.

  7. I really liked this one because it was subtle. You know that he is going to fall out of love with America, but the way it happens to him is gradual. What did you think of the ending (without giving it all away!)

  8. Federer? Nadal? Neither lost and neither won. The game had to be stopped sometime and it turned out Nadal won the last set, as it could have been Federer.

    There’s a paragraph in your post that drew my attention:

    …he said: ‘You’re a watchful guy. You know where that comes from?’ I shook my head. ‘It comes from feeling out of place,’ he said. ‘Believe me, I know.’

    That is true.

  9. Kim L: shock, but somehow or other it was a shock of confirmation, it could not have been different, could it?
    Jose: Yes isn’t tennis just awful in that respect, either you win or lose – there’s no graded area.
    And yes, that quote from the book is so spot on, confirming the outsider.

  10. I’m really late in responding to this, but the Wimbledon’s men’s finals were wonderful! I love both Nadal and Federer.


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