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Introspective novel leads readers down the dark alleyways of alienation

By David Wilson

By Rawi Hage
(House of Anansi) $29.95

He has no name and few real friends. He has no money so he lies and steals. He is suicidal and prone to creepy hallucinations. He’s cold, bitter and spiteful. Yet the first-person protagonist of this intense and deeply introspective second novel by Rawi Hage is strangely sympathetic. He has been shaped by forces beyond his control, and there, but for the grace of God, go we all.

Hage set his widely acclaimed first novel, De Niro’s Game, amid the barbarity of the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. He locates this follow-up novel — nominated for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award — among Middle Eastern expatriates in Montreal, where Hage himself eventually settled after leaving war-torn Beirut two decades ago. The characters he draws are rootless and wounded, haunted by events half a world away and struggling to fashion new lives in a place whose heart and landscape are pitilessly cold.

The unnamed protagonist would rather be dead than alive, but even suicide doesn’t come easy. Cursed to survive, he leads us through the mean streets of the immigrant underworld and down dark alleyways of alienation and emotional torment. Like the therapist he visits, we sense there is something in his background that can explain why he is here and what he has become. Yet he jealously, maddeningly, guards his truth. Slowly, painstakingly, the narrative peels away his layers of artifice, setting up a final act of redemption that, in a twisted way, gives meaning and definition to his new life in Canada.

Much of the book is written as interior monologue, sliding in and out of the protagonist’s flirtation with madness. It’s not always an easy read. Nor is it always a genteel read (the title should be a tipoff). Yet it rings true. We sometimes forget that this is a nation of immigrants and that life here can be very hard for those who are new to it. Hage takes aim at complacency, reminding readers that there’s a bit of the unnamed protagonist, the scuffling outsider, in us all.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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