the reluctant fundamentalist

Since I started working again I haven’t had so much time to blog, or indeed to do things to blog about, like baking! But one thing I have been doing a lot more of is reading. My commute takes just under an hour each way, and I’m actually quite enjoying that window of time where I can just lose myself in a book.

My book of choice for the last few days has been “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, by Mohsin Hamid. I’d never heard of it, but a friend recommended it and lent me her copy. It’s not a long book, as the style of writing is very economical. Each line packs a punch, and no space is wasted, which makes it very readable. I finished it in about four train journeys!

The story takes place over the course of one evening in Lahore, in Pakistan. It begins with a Pakistani man approaching an American man in the street and inviting him to join him for tea. The Pakistani man is the narrator, telling his story, and you, the reader, are the American stranger listening to it. I really enjoyed the narrative style; it genuinely felt as though I had been collared by a mysterious stranger and invited to sit down and listen to his life story, whether I wanted to or not.

In truth, he does not tell his life story, but about his experiences living in America. He reveals that, as one of Pakistan’s brightest young students, he was given a full scholarship to Princeton at the age of eighteen. At the end of his time at college, he is selected from hundreds of applicants for a graduate job at a prestigious New York firm. Shortly afterwards, he takes a trip to Greece with some fellow students, where he meets a beautiful girl named Erica and becomes enamoured by her. After their return to America, they are both living in New York, and spend an increasing amount of time together.

The main part of the story focuses on his time as a graduate, the challenges he faces in his career and his attempts to pursue a relationship with Erica, who is deeply vulnerable and damaged. During this time, the World Trade Center is attacked, and he finds himself, as a Pakistani, living in New York through the aftermath of September 11. This affects him deeply, as he finds himself struggling with two very different identities: that of the young, successful, ambitious Princeton graduate pursuing the American dream, and that of the Pakistani Muslim with strong emotional ties to his family and his native country and culture.

The story is beautiful told, drawing the reader in softly and subtly. The narrator is unfailingly polite and courteous and comes across as a gentleman, but there is an undercurrent of tension throughout which suggests that something is not quite right. He lulls the reader into a false sense of security, and at the same time creates an atmosphere which is both unsettling and disturbing. When the twist comes at the end, it is surprising, and yet somehow inevitable at the same time.

I don’t want to give too much away, but if you’re looking for something to read, give this book a try. It gives a fascinating insight into world politics, and in particular the relationship between America and the Muslim world, without being heavy or hard to get into. Highly recommended!

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