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.
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.