The Parisian

The Parisian

As the First World War shatters families, destroys friendships and kills lovers, a young Palestinian dreamer sets out to find himself.Midhat Kamal picks his way across a fractured world, from the shifting politics of the Middle East to the dinner tables of Montpellier and a newly tumultuous Paris. He discovers that everything is fragile: love turns to loss, friends become...

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Title:The Parisian
Author:Isabella Hammad
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The Parisian Reviews

  • Adam Dalva

    I loved this book - was really swept away by it - and will say more once it comes out! It does a lot of really good things (transporting historical fiction that is relevant to now, interpersonal drama that kept me hooked) and is simultaneously unusually ambitious.

    The early 20th century timeframe is lush and fascinating, and Midhat Kamal, a dreamer between worlds (France, and love; Nablus, and community) is a terrific lead. One to watch out for.

  • Vivek Tejuja

    Hands Down, The Parisian is one of the best books I've read this year and its only mid-March. But I can say this with utmost assurance. I do not normally read historical novels but The Parisian is an exception I am glad I made. It would have been a lost opportunity had I decided not to read this book. Plus this book is not only historical, but also psychological in nature, which makes you want to read it even more.

    This is a debut and I couldn't believe it. Hammad writes with such assurance and

    Hands Down, The Parisian is one of the best books I've read this year and its only mid-March. But I can say this with utmost assurance. I do not normally read historical novels but The Parisian is an exception I am glad I made. It would have been a lost opportunity had I decided not to read this book. Plus this book is not only historical, but also psychological in nature, which makes you want to read it even more.

    This is a debut and I couldn't believe it. Hammad writes with such assurance and elegance, that no reader can believe that this is her first work. Anyhow, now to the plot. The book opens at the time of the First World War. Midhat Kamal, a young Palestinian from Nablus is forced by his autocratic father to study medicine in Montpellier, France. There, he stays at the home of a professor at the college, Docteur Molineu, who is extremely warm to him. While studying, Midhat falls head over heels in love with Molineu's daughter, Jeannette. And this is where all troubles begin.

    When the war is over, he returns to Nablus and begins to rediscover his homeland, deciding to work for his family's clothing business. He focuses then on the old, and forgets France, as though it was just something that occurred in a different lifetime. He marries someone he doesn't even know, has children, and his life is pretty much on track, till something occurs and his world blows apart.

    This is where the political and personal merge in the novel and from hereon are my favourite parts of the novel. Hammad's writing is lucid, and yet complex. She doesn't spoon-feed the reader. She throws crumbs - you have to follow it, and learn more about the time, the conflict, and some resolutions concerning the timeline in which the book is set. 

    The Parisian deals with so many issues that one time that sometimes it becomes difficult to follow everything at once, but if you persist and read back and forth, the book is a treasure. There is the question of personal identity,  cultural identity, again given the time it is set in the idea of politics and the self, family to be placed at the helm or not, and a nation on the brink of struggling for independence. Phew! There is needed a lot going on, but not once does Hammad stray from what she wants the reader to feel while reading the book. The element of suspense and intrigue also makes you want to turn the page sooner than you know. 

    The writing is indeed of top-form. Yes, there are a lot of colloquialisms but that helps you learn something new and that worked for me. And all of this is told with such clarity and well-constructed prose that it is nothing short of joy to read this novel. The Parisian is a novel that questions, gives answers as well, makes you think beyond your comfort zone, and does all of this with great warmth and tenderness. 

  • Fran

    "When I look at my life...I see a whole list of mistakes. Lovely beautiful mistakes. I wouldn't change them". Midhat Kamal reflects on a life lived, beginning in Nablus, a village north of Jerusalem. (On today's West Bank) In 1914, the Ottoman Empire was declining and World War I was on the horizon. In order to avoid conscription in the Turkish Army, Midhat's father, a rich textile merchant, sent him to Montpellier to study medicine. Midhat appeared uneasy but followed his father's dictates.

    "When I look at my life...I see a whole list of mistakes. Lovely beautiful mistakes. I wouldn't change them". Midhat Kamal reflects on a life lived, beginning in Nablus, a village north of Jerusalem. (On today's West Bank) In 1914, the Ottoman Empire was declining and World War I was on the horizon. In order to avoid conscription in the Turkish Army, Midhat's father, a rich textile merchant, sent him to Montpellier to study medicine. Midhat appeared uneasy but followed his father's dictates. Arrangements were made for Frederic Molineu, professor of anthropology, to host the Palestinian medical student.

    Midhat's joy at new found freedom was complicated by "strong gusts of anxiety...[he had a ] comparative ignorance of European convention". His fondness and budding love for Jeannette Molineu, however, grew by leaps and bounds. He had "an explosive and unwieldy desire which only increased in strength the longer she ignored him". Unfortunately, Midhat discovered that Professor Molineu had a hidden agenda. He was hosting the medical student in order to assess the young Muslim's assimilation to European culture. Feeling betrayed, Midhat left Montpellier's Medical School behind, moved to Paris, and enrolled in the Sorbonne.

    As a student of history, he debated with revolutionaries and political leaders. Civil unrest was building as the French then the British exercised control over Palestine. Midhat was caught between two cultures, never fully embracing either. In Paris, he could be a man about town, well dressed and sporting a cane. His exciting life was interrupted by his father's insistence that he return to Nablus, start his career, marry and have children. Nablus was "ancient", a city of "many tales, curses and charms". Where did Midhat belong? He arguably felt like a man without a country, an outsider to both Palestinian and French culture. His struggles mirrored the turbulence and the changing face of Palestine.

    "The Parisian" by Isabella Hammad was a work of historical fiction addressing cultural identity, love, hardship and sorrow as Midhat navigated the realities of life during the unsettling political climate of the time. This hefty tome of almost 600 pages was well worth reading.

    Thank you Grove Atlantic and Net Galley for the opportunity to read and review "The Parisian".

  • Will

    4.5, rounded up

    Isabella Hammad’s ambitious, and accomplished historical novel is an auspicious debut and a remarkable achievement for such a young writer. There is little to criticize in such an intelligent and beautifully written book. If there are a few missteps, occurring in the later part of the novel where there is an introduction of many characters and a shift in focus, I thought them minor and forgivable. Internal, political, this was a highly compelling read for me. As any good

    4.5, rounded up

    Isabella Hammad’s ambitious, and accomplished historical novel is an auspicious debut and a remarkable achievement for such a young writer. There is little to criticize in such an intelligent and beautifully written book. If there are a few missteps, occurring in the later part of the novel where there is an introduction of many characters and a shift in focus, I thought them minor and forgivable. Internal, political, this was a highly compelling read for me. As any good historical novel will do it also imparts knowledge and understanding of the past, in this case a brief history of Palestine and its struggle for freedom. I repeat this so often after reading a great debut novel (so many lately) that it feels so clichéd, but here goes: Hammad is definitely one to watch. It will be interesting to see if this figures into major awards this year – I think it has the potential.

  • Beata

    I was left almost speechless after finishing this novel. A review in one of the magazines caught my attention and I made a quick decision to purchase this novel and give it a chance despite knowing very little about the decline of the Ottoman empire and even less about the birth of the Palestinian nationalism. This is an epic tale of love and seeking identity which begins just after WW1 began and continues for approximately twenty years, moving from France to the Middle East. In my opinion

    I was left almost speechless after finishing this novel. A review in one of the magazines caught my attention and I made a quick decision to purchase this novel and give it a chance despite knowing very little about the decline of the Ottoman empire and even less about the birth of the Palestinian nationalism. This is an epic tale of love and seeking identity which begins just after WW1 began and continues for approximately twenty years, moving from France to the Middle East. In my opinion Isabella Hammad makes a splendid debut with a historical novel that was a wonderful read for me and deserves five stars. There are no experiments in it, and if you are close to the 19th century literature, you will enjoy it as much as I did.

  • Paromjit

    Isabella Hammad writes of a 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

    Isabella Hammad writes of a 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.

  • Lou

    A masterful debut novel by Plimpton Prize winner Isabella Hammad, The Parisian illuminates a pivotal period of Palestinian history through the journey and romances of one young man, from his studies in France during World War I to his return to Palestine at the dawn of its battle for independence.

    Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus, a town in Ottoman Palestine. A dreamer, a romantic, an aesthete, in 1914 he leaves to study medicine in France, and falls in love. When

    A masterful debut novel by Plimpton Prize winner Isabella Hammad, The Parisian illuminates a pivotal period of Palestinian history through the journey and romances of one young man, from his studies in France during World War I to his return to Palestine at the dawn of its battle for independence.

    Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus, a town in Ottoman Palestine. A dreamer, a romantic, an aesthete, in 1914 he leaves to study medicine in France, and falls in love. When Midhat returns to Nablus to find it under British rule, and the entire region erupting with nationalist fervor, he must find a way to cope with his conflicting loyalties and the expectations of his community. The story of Midhat’s life develops alongside the idea of a nation, as he and those close to him confront what it means to strive for independence in a world that seems on the verge of falling apart.

    Against a landscape of political change that continues to define the Middle East, The Parisian explores questions of power and identity, enduring love, and the uncanny ability of the past to disrupt the present. Lush and immersive, and devastating in its power, The Parisian is an elegant, richly-imagined debut from a superb new voice in fiction. With a beautifully written narrative and danger lurking around every corner, this is a stunning novel with heart and hope but above all, it covers a neglected period in history.

    Many thanks to Jonathan Cape for an ARC.

  • Gumble's Yard

    Unlike Midhat – we know the answer to this question.

    His great-grandaughter Isabella, bought up on family stories of her great-grandfather Midhat (who returned to the Palestinian town of Nablus after a period studying in France during World War I,

    Unlike Midhat – we know the answer to this question.

    His great-grandaughter Isabella, bought up on family stories of her great-grandfather Midhat (who returned to the Palestinian town of Nablus after a period studying in France during World War I, affected a Parisien style of dress), the most recurrent of which featured a mysterious French woman, has written this lengthy novel to tell his love story and alongside and through it a sprawling, multi-character, 23 year history of the Palestinian independence movements up to the mid 1930s.

    The book’s style seems to owe much to a 19th Century tradition – this is a novel which (other than for a brief flurry towards the end when we are thrust into the middle of guerilla warfare between the Palestinian freedom fighters and the British Mandate army) takes place primarily in an interior and, in at many crucial junctures epistolary, rather than physical space.

    It is also a novel of exile – exile which is both physical and mental.

    Midhat himself is always on the fringes of the independence movement and his brief love affair in Montpellier while over almost as soon as it begins, haunts (quite literally) the rest of his life. Another main point of view character, a French priest, is also an outsider – observing the people of Palestine for reasons which become increasingly blurred in his own mind, and realising much too late that even those with who he thinks he identifies (a group of nuns who man a local hospital) are far more deliberately and directly involved in the struggle than he realises.

    One of the impressive aspects of the novel is its rejection of two of the exposition modes of storytelling commonly adopted by historical novels (a third party narrator or artificial dialogue) – and while a third (the letter) is adopted it is used sparingly and more for conveying feelings between characters, with the sparing historical details included being natural and unforced. Instead historical context is supplied by an easily cross-referenced timeline in the appendix.

    What is perhaps less impressive is the author’s grasp of either character or point of view writing – unfortunately I felt that the sense of being on another side of a barrier, of feeling that my own mental processes were more real than the world is which I was immersed and that I was somehow excluded from the day to day reality of those around me – applied not just to Midhat and the Priest but to my own experience as a reader. This sense was not helped by the liberal use of Arabic and French through the dialogue – a device I always find artificial (as well as unhelpful) when characters are speaking exclusively in a language but their translated speech is peppered with original language.

    Despite its flaws this is an astonishingly ambitious debut novel (even more astonishing for the age of its author): a book surely destined to feature on prize lists such as the Desmond Elliot, Betty Trask or Dylan Thomas Prize, if not even less exclusive, better known prizes.

  • Roman Clodia

    Sometimes it just seems like you've been reading a completely different book from fellow reviewers - this is the case for me here. 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

    Sometimes it just seems like you've been reading a completely different book from fellow reviewers - this is the case for me here. 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.

  • Dan

    Terrific atmospherics, good story, good main character. Too long, too many characters: its length and surfeit of characters detract from its impact. Too much meandering, too many plot odds and ends, twists and turns, some more integral than others. Ending disappointing, not so much unresolved or concluded, just stopped. Look forward to reading her next, more finely honed novel.

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