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The Parisian

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The Parisian is an epic novel spanning WWI and its aftermath. It is set in Paris and the changing Levant. Borders shift after the First World War and Nationalism is rising in territories once part of Turkey's Empire. The French and British occupy the area. The Jewish population quests for a homeland. Arab nationalism with varying factions seeks independence. It's a novel that has profound relevance for today. It is out of this Nationalism that Syria comes into existence as a state. Through fiction a reader appreciates how past affects both present and future. I could wax lyrical about the political scenario underpinning this book but it is enough to say that the History is seemlessly integrated into the novel's more personal story; that this story is spellbinding and memorable.

Midhat arrives in France after an early education in Istanbul to study medicine in Montpelier. In France he meets the love of his life. Due to misunderstandings and disagreements he removes to Paris where he becomes involved with an expat community. He evolves into the sophisticated and cultured Parisian. The label sticks. Throughout the story's longevity he cannot forget his first love and ,of course ,this does return to haunt him with a seriously sad betrayal which threatens to destroy him. The novel's realism is pitch- perfect. Midhat works for his father and in time he marries as expected. But there are other betrayals to make life hard for Midhat.

The Parisian explores the quest for identity, personal and national. Its  pages contain skirmishes in Jerusalem, protests, a spying priest, a hospital of nuns, a portrait of family life, marriage, friendship and what it is to be human. A frisson of danger runs through the book. The writing is beautiful. There are excellent descriptive passages and fabulous fully rounded characterisation. It sparkles like the Levant sea. The novel's scope is reminiscent of other great novels in this genre such as The Jewel in the Crown, The Fortunes of War and Dr Zhivago. The Parisian is a truly gripping novel about a family who dwell in a city close to Jerusalem and this family's fortunes.  At its heart is the sorrow of war and a heart-breaking romance. It's a great read.
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Wonderfully written - well observed - our Arab protagonist who we track from his first taste of France and the mores of Paris to his eventual revulsion and return home - manages to convey the subtle differences in culture that make him walk away from european life. We sense the oddness from his pov in brilliant ways as his love life, at first with a French woman, and then detecting his otherness to her and her father, with colleagues after an introduction on board ship ... later, married, we see how he has fit into life with barely adequate wife - his story moves us an reaches us across cultural boundaries. Really exceptional ...
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The novel starts with Midhat, a Palestinian, going to Paris to study medicine around the time of the start of the First World War. We see there both inter-cultural misunderstanding and attempts to bridge the differences between cultures. Midhat returns to Palestine and settles down to a fairly conventional Middle Eastern life, until things happen that disrupt the rhythm of his life. This is a tale where geopolitics play a large part, with European powers taking decisions that affect long-standing communities. It helps to have some knowledge of the history of Palestine over the last 100 years, but this is not essential.

As fictionalised history, the story works fairly well. But I am afraid I had a number of problems with the book. I found the central character, Midhat, too self-obsessed. There were passages which felt dragged out. Most annoying of all was the French section in the first fifth or so of the book. Here the dialogue - rendered mainly in English - was sprinkled with interpolated French words and phrases as if readers needed constant reminders that the action was taking part in France: I found this unnecessary, artificial and irritating and it broke the flow. Early on, there were one or two attempts to translate French ways of saying things fairly literally into English, and the results had me sometimes giggling, as if I was reading the script of a not very good British sitcom set in France. As the opening sections progressed, the use of French words and phrases became less frequent and the conversation more natural and colloquial, as if characters had been struggling with the art of conversation, but then mastered the skill of talking fluently.

Judicious revision would have improved the book substantially.
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3.5 stars
This was the first physical arc which I had successfully requested from the publishers, and I had really high hopes for it, but unfortunately, it didn't deliver for me.

This book starts so well but ultimately by the time I reached the end of this very large book, I had stopped caring.  It is beautifully written and the first section in France was very engaging.  Midhat Kamel is sent to France to study medicine in order to escape any possibility of being drafted into the Turkish army.  He lives with a French family and not surprisingly he becomes enchanted with the daughter.

After the war, he returns back to his home city of Nablus in what is now in the west bank and then the story which had concentrated almost entirely on Midhat starts to fracture and it becomes a far more wide-reaching story, this is where I think this book fails.  I found I had to keep referring to the lengthy cast list at the beginning of the book to figure out who was who.  There is also a detailed timeline in the back of the book which was essential in figuring out what was happening in their world on a political level.

in my opinion, having such a huge number of individual characters was unnecessary and detracted from the core story.  Some only flit in and out for a chapter or two, never to be seen again, without adding anything to the core narrative.

I feel I did learn a lot about the consequences of the creation of the Zionist state of Israel and the struggles the Arab population had to endure in the time between the world wars, but this came at a price.  What started a wonderfully character led novel turned into a history book, a bait and switch.   Many of the other reviewers on Goodreads loved it however, I don't feel that this is a bad book in any way though, it's just not the book for me.

If you are interested in the political and historical situation in Palestine before the start of world war two then this may well be the book for you.

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sabella Hammad writes of period of history that frames and depicts one of the most intransigent conflicts of our contemporary world, she covers the can of worms that is the geopolitical nightmare of the incendiary and complex nature of Middle Eastern politics and conflict(s). She does it by giving it a humanity through her characters, specifically a young idealistic Palestinian, Midhat Kamal, from a comfortable background ordered by his father to study medicine in France, from WWI to the period approaching WW2. It is 1914, Midhat is bright and curious, encountering a freedom he has never previously experienced, surrounded by a new and fascinating culture. In Montpellier, he lives with a professor and his daughter, Jeanette, with whom he falls in love, but in all ends in tears and disillusionment with what Midhat perceives as betrayal. He finds himself in a turbulent Paris during the war years, engaging in lively political and philosophical discourse and more, and where friendships and relationships are turned upside down.

Midhat is recalled back home to Nablus by his father, with the expectation that he will fulfil his family duties. This sees him married to a woman he does not know, having children and working in the family business, meeting his family obligations. Never looking back at the world he left behind, his clothes and acquired European perspectives now mark him out as an outsider, where he comes to be referred to as The Parisian. However, his everyday life and family domesticity is to be shattered beyond belief, sparking and fostering a climate of political activism and rebellion in the Palestinian communities. This takes place amidst the arrogant and ill thought out behaviour and actions of the colonial powers of Britain and France, the drawing up of national borders that take little account of regional history and local populations. It sets forth the huge and epic tragedies, personal, family and national, through the years, right through to the present day. The repercussions and impact of the colonial powers doings and machinations of other major geopolitical powers entrench the horrific implications of what happened and the festering open wounds that look set to never heal, around which never ending wars are still being fought. 

This is not always a easy read, but it is intensely thought provoking and throws much needed light on a period of history that is rarely the subject and focus of novels. Hammad's research is impressive, and her focus on portraying the Middle East through the years through the lives of Midhat, his observations, trials and tribulations in the times he lives through, along with that of others, works well in providing the reader with compelling characterisation to invest in. I am not sure this is a book that will work for everyone, but it is a novel that deserves to be lauded for providing insights into a critically important period of history, that offers opportunities to learn about the global geopolitical machinations and the key seeds and sources of complex contemporary global discord today. Many thanks to Random House Vintage for an ARC.
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This novel tells the story of a young Palestinian finding his way in his life in the early 20th century.  Midhat leaves his native Palestine to study in Paris and then returns home, where he is expected to lead the life that his family have mapped out for him.  An interesting study of the turmoils experienced by Palestinians under occupation around and after the first world war, as well as of one young man's inner turmoils as he tries to find his place in his world.  The one thing I found rather annoying about this book is that throughout, it is punctuated with phrases and whole conversations in both French and Arabic, and if you have no knowledge of either language, you will be left wondering where the story is going - there is no translation.
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This is quite a remarkable novel  in  many ways for ambition and style, for subject matter and prose.

Although some of it is set in Paris, this is largely the story of the turbulent and tragic events which took place in Palestine during the post World War 1. This gives a unique view on an important period in history though a very interesting set of young eyes - those of the main character Midhat

We meet him in Paris as his father has sent him there to study. However, his heart lies in his hometown of Nablus and he follows events which are happening there, wondering how his family are. The time in Montpellier and Paris is a brilliant one to read about - Midhat enjoys freedoms and new experiences he’s never had before. He goes out, he learns about the West, freedoms and how he is and who he wants to be. He’s proud to be studying medicine and to be on his own two feet. Once he returns to Nablus, he becomes embroiled in his family’s future however and his knowledge of the political situation, having seen it through a French/European angle has changed his views. This time he is an outsider too but one wanting to reconnect and rediscover his homeland

I found the whole journey very interesting and it certainly gave a new insight into how someone might find their homeland after leaving it and heading West. The situation in the Middle East continues to be a political hot potato, but what I found in this novel is that although that is of course mentioned, it’s the personal struggles and families that bear the brunt of the changes. There’s a lot to discuss of the back of this novel too - what role the UK and the US had in the carving up of the Middle East for example. But I was pleased the novel focused more on Midhat and the people.

There was perhaps a little bit too much Arabic and hardcore politics in certain parts but then could this novel have been written without that? When you focus on the human struggles, that’s where the real issues lie.

A rewarding read. Especially if you study international relations and/or Arabic
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This book has received some high praise and its easy to understand why. For a debut novel this book was fantastic. I loved learning about a different era especially as us westerners don’t necessarily see the human beings caught up in the situation, who are essentially just the same as us. 

I loved the story but found the characters difficult to warm to - Midhal especially was self absorbed and selfish. 

Despite this I would definately recommend this book to family and friends.
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A subject matter which interested me, a style which did not work for me

I requested this book with high hopes : it interests me to read books whose subject matter is outside my own personal background and experience. Unfortunately, where the subject is complex, and where perhaps there are (as there are here) complex issues, philosophies and discussion points which the writer wants the reader to be engaged by, and ponder, it is crucial that the writer can avoid the kind of ‘talking heads’ scenario and can find genuine ways of letting the reader engage with each character, and understand where they are coming from

To my mind, Hammad  does not succeed. I began to seriously disengage at the point where the central character moves to Paris. He meets a group of fellow Syrians, and engages in philosophical, political, ethical discussions. Hammad had a mixture of talking head spouting and attempts to leaven the dryness of this with rather poor attempts at humour/characterisation dependent on how people were or were not greedily eating  food, ribbing each other about the food they were expecting to have, drinking or not drinking and the like. This MIGHT have worked if it were a play, where actors would flesh out and inhabit the rather stilted dialogue Hammad was giving her characters, but I lost engagement. There was also far too much, for my mind, attempt to give cultural flavour by the use of words from other languages. I did not really want to be having to read permanently connected to the internet on my Kindle, as these were words not available on the internal dictionary.

A big red pen was needed, editorially, to pare things down. Hammad’s canvas was crowded with hordes of people, and, outside the major characters, nothing was really differentiating many of the named people who came and went swiftly, so, again, having to constantly use look inside to remind me who this person or that person was, proved tiring. Sadly, I gave up at about 35%, as I was reading because I really needed to keep on in order to feel that I could at least write a review explaining why this did not work for me
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Isabella Hamud has a wonderful way of conjuring up domestic scenes, desert landscapes and city sophistication and it is her use of place that really brings ‘The Parisian’ alive.  We can smell the bougainvillea and the strong coffee and feel the sand blowing and the sun beating down on the rugged hills.  From the moment that the Palestinian student medic Midhat Kamal arrives in Montpellier to stay with widower Molineau, a social anthropologist at the university, and his daughter Jeanette, he is entranced by the latter and grows ever more delighted by all things European, if a little bemused at times.  However, although the students fall in love, Midhat is eventually horribly insulted when he learns what appears to be the reason for his host’s genial motives and leaves for Paris where he gravitates towards fellow expatriates.
Hamud reminds us of the upheavals felt in the Middle East, caused by the First World War, as the men tell of their trials whilst escaping the enemy so, when Midhat returns home, the reader already has a sense of his country and the inevitable culture clash that will be felt.  As the story unfolds, Midhat is ordered to settle down in Nablus with a suitable Muslim wife.  It is against this domestic background that the geopolitics of the area are explored and the reader is swept along by the anger and the frustration felt by the Palestinians becomes the driving force of the narrative.
The focus on a history rarely told in novel form is perhaps the primary reason for recommending ‘The Parisian’.  In contrast with this strength, there are sections where the story seems overly drawn out and Midhat is not the most beguiling of characters, whilst the extensive cast list at the beginning of the novel was nothing is not off-putting.  Just ignore it!  All in all, however, worth reading for the history lesson alone.
My thanks to NetGalley and Jonathan Cape, Vintage, Penguin Random House for a copy of this novel in exchange for a fair review.
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This book is beautifully written. It conjures up the dreams of young characters set against the context of their upbringing and the tragic events of their time. The lead character studying in France is particularly well described. He is challenged by the expectations of his father when he fits more comfortably into the easier life style of his adopted country. The historical background is particularly well used to support the fictional story. The book is sensitive,evocative and challenging.
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An intriguing chronicle of Palestinian history, combined with a close-knit family story.  The eldest son travels to Marseilles - his first ever sea voyage that, in itself, is a major event in his life.  He lodges with a father and daughter and the inevitable happens - he and the daughter fall in love.  However,  circumstances force him to leave hastily.  He finds new friends in Paris but finally returns to Palestine and joins the family business.  From then on the reader becomes immersed in Palestinian history, politics, the struggle for independence, and war, but also the close family network.
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I really wanted to enjoy this book. However I found this book a bit of the heavy side. Slightly too much. Could get to grips with the plot.
Thank you to both NetGalley and Random house uk for my eARC in exchange for my honest unbiased review
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I can see that this book may well become a classic but like many such works, some will love it whilst others struggle to see what the fuss is about. Personally I found this work a challenge. Mostly due to the vast number of characters and family refered to. Yes there is a list provided but I do not want to keep looking back to understand each chapter. An interesting subject, rare and carefully researched but not an easy read.
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Gorgeous prose in places but for me, the historical and cultural aspects demanded too much of me when I was looking for something less challenging. Not the fault of the talented author; this was one of those 'great book, wrong time' deals.
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I was looking forward to reading this novel set in France and the Middle East in 1914 as it’s not something I’ve read much about before. However unlike other reviewers I found once he’d arrived in France it became very slow and the characters he met quite pedestrian. Th enlist of characters at the beginning was somewhat off-putting, I’m not a fan of novels that require the reader to keep referring to a character list to find out who’s who. I shall go back to it later and try again.
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This impressive debut opens at the time of the First World War. Midhat Kamal is a young Palestinian from Nablus, despatched by his patriarchal father to study medicine in Montpellier. There, he stays at the home of a professor at the college, Docteur Molineu, who extends the warmest of welcomes. Midhat falls desperately in love with Molineu’s daughter Jeannette. But when Midhat discovers what he considers to be a dreadful personal betrayal, his life changes course…

Isabella Hamad’s historical novel takes Midhat from Montpellier to Paris and then his return home to Nablus where his natty dressing and bonhomie stance earns him the nickname of ‘the Parisian’. His father orders him to find a wife – the task of finding a suitable candidate is handed to Midhat’s grandmother. He must now settle down to a conventional Muslim life. Meanwhile, the tensions of geopolitics are fermenting in the background and, as the story progresses, the anger of the Palestinians comes more sharply into focus.

This is told in clear, well-constructed prose with a simple, elegant style that I found a pleasure to read. The few flourishes, such as they are, work well: “a thin layer of dust…grouted the crevices of his outstretched hand”. Don’t be too put off by the exceedingly long cast list; I never referred to it once as many of the characters are fleeting and not fundamental to the plot which is really Midhat’s intimate story. There is plenty of Arabic to contend with but one gets the gist. The book marks time in the middle when nothing much happens – a tighter edit would have improved it considerably. But all in all, a very enjoyable, enlightening read and one that I warmly recommend. 4.5*
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Sometimes it just seems like you've been reading a completely different book from fellow reviewers - this is the case for me. It's certainly ambitious to attempt to tell the story of the troubled foundations of the Middle East from the First World War through to the mid-1930s or so, taking in the high-handed behaviour of colonial powers (Britain, France), nationalist movements and the promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine - but I struggled to engage with this as a novel. The five-page character list with family alliances already indicates that the scope is huge - so huge that the narrative can't stand alone and needs this prop. Characters don't come to life on the page, there are clunky introductions of a new person followed by extensive back-story, the pacing means we dither around at the beginning in Montpellier that has little to do with the rest of the story other than to introduce a kind of love affair and a horrible example of cultural racism that surely could have been handled with more finesse. I found the writing lacking in clarity and flow and in the sweep of history and events couldn't 'see' any of the characters. 

All that said, other readers clearly have had different experiences - for some reason I just didn't gel with this book.
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This is a novel that covers an area of history I don’t know anything about. I found the whole book slow and difficult to follow in places, mainly due to the amount of historical information that was included. Not one for me I am afraid.
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This is beautifully written.  It's the story of Midhat, who travels to France at the beginning of the novel to study and later returns to Palestine post-WW1.

It's a lengthy book, and quite slow moving in parts.  I struggled to get into it, but the writing was superb and I realised (somewhat to my shame) how little I know about the history of Palestine - particularly at this period.  Give yourself plenty of time to read it, as it's not a book to race through!
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