The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A couple of weeks ago I had a brief wait in the Birmingham train station, waiting to catch a train back to York. Somehow I found myself in the bookstore (imagine that!) and picked up a book I'd heard a bit about: Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize (akin to the American Pulitzer). After perusing the blurbs, I opened to the first page which opens thus:
"Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your own language, I thought I might offer you my services."
Perhaps it was the use of the second person; perhaps it was because I somehow heard this in accent; perhaps it was because of the tension embedded in just these few lines; but in any case, I was hooked. Though I stacks of papers to grade on the train ride home, I bought the book and consumed it, finishing it just as the trained rolled into York station.

The book is set in a timeline that spans pre- and post-9/11 context; the event itself makes only a minimal cameo, though its ripple effects drive the later action of the narrative (tensions between India and Pakistan are much more significant). The novel tracks the "formation," one might say, of a young Pakistani, Changez, by some of America's most powerful institutions, including Princeton, Wall Street, and New York in general. (Of the difference between Princeton and New York, the narrator notes: "I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker.")

But the story also documents how his personal version of the American dream begins to unravel, because of 9/11, because of a surprising--even unwanted--new sense of allegiance to his homeland, because of a girlfriend who seems to have all one could dream of but who, in fact, suffers a private nightmare.

Hamid's command of the very difficult second-person approach is stunning, allowing him to play with time and ambiguities in quite captivating ways--including a delightfully maddening conclusion. And the story moves quickly while also developing characters: sort of breezy, but with real substance that sticks with you long after you're done the book. In short, a great read for a train ride.