Zadie Smith has taught creative writing at NYU for 15 years and this is the first time she has provided such a glowing pre-publication quote for a student: "A sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful. It is realism in the tradition of Flaubert and Stendhal—everything that happens feels not so much imagined as ordained. That this remarkable historical epic should be the début of a writer in her twenties seems impossible, yet it’s true. Isabella Hammad is an enormous talent and her book is a wonder.
Still in her 20s, London-born Isabella Hammad establishes herself here as a literary force to be reckoned with. The Parisian is, in many ways, an extraordinary achievement, but is it really “realism in the tradition of Flaubert”, as Zadie Smith claims in her blurb, or rather a beautifully executed pastiche? (Has Smith forgotten her own Two Paths for the Novel?) At times Hammad gestures towards realism’s imperialist ambitions – its colonisation of as-yet-unnamed realms of experience – but her own work retains little, if anything, of that spirit of experimentation. For all its brilliance, The Parisian belongs to a genre that was already outdated when the events it describes were set.
Zadie Smith’s endorsement on the cover compares Hammad to Flaubert and Stendhal, and the social tapestry she creates certainly has a sense of their worlds, but one could also cite the realism of Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, or set her against a contemporary historical novelist such as Jennifer Egan in her inter-war Manhattan Beach. A story of cultures in simultaneous conflict and concord, The Parisian teems with riches – love, war, betrayal and madness – and marks the arrival of a bright new talent.
The experience of reading The Parisian is akin to plunging into a great 19th-century classic, thanks to the languorous pace, easy poise, minute observations and the apparent ease with which Hammad takes her third person narrative from one character to another, letting her reader inhabit different viewpoints. There is also an underlying urgency to this rich, luscious novel: the themes that Hammad explores in Midhat’s life reverberate in the book’s political framework, which charts Palestine’s struggle under Ottoman, French and British rule between 1914 and 1936. So Midhat’s battle to throw off the yoke of various influencing forces — be that of his father, France or even a curse — is echoed in the fight for Palestinian liberation.
Hammad has an exquisite control on her subject: this is precise writing, measured, and careful. It doesn’t sprawl; it pins. And it doesn’t get swept up in generalisations or making characters mouthpieces for the march of history; rather, her detail makes you feel the homes and cities she takes us to, and the people that inhabit them, are as multifaceted and mysterious as those of real life. Hammad’s presentation of a politically contentious time, the after-effects of which are still felt today, is also complex and demandingly layered – as it should be.
It’s an admirably ambitious debut by an intelligent, hard-working writer. Which is why I think [Zadie] Smith has done Hammad a real disservice. Her endorsement and the ensuing hype will sell copies, but they will also raise readers’ expectations way beyond what’s reasonable....The whole thing could have done with a very vigorous prune and maybe a few jokes. But the breadth of research on display here is impressive, as is Hammad’s granular depiction of this most politically complex of regions. With energy and care, she animates a crucial period of Palestinian history that most readers will know little about... Unsurprisingly, she is not Stendhal. She’s not Flaubert. She’s not even an “enormous talent”. She’s a promising apprentice with a great deal still to learn, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Will she go on to write something extraordinary? I don’t know. But everyone will be expecting the extraordinary from her. Poor Isabella Hammad.
This novel’s prose is clear to the point that it feels almost authorless. The only stylistic tic is the occasional word placed unusually in a sentence, giving the gentle sense of writing translated from another language: ‘He was quite as elegant as she remembered’; ‘too early she had exposed him to the shocking insubstantiality of the family’. The Parisian is a graceful and balanced book, animated throughout by an immense social intelligence. If at times it feels a little too balanced, the author’s poise verging on distance, it is nonetheless a pleasure to read.