Here Comes Faiza Guene — Got a Problem with That?

  Her voice is intoxicating. It’s like no one else writing. She’s tough, honest, and angry as a bull in the ring – but though the odds are stacked against Faiza Guene’s twenty-five-year-old heroine, there’s never any question of Ahleme going down without a fight. Ever since her mother died and her family fled from Algeria, she’s raised her little brother, Foued, and God help him if she ever finds out he’s become involved in teenage gang activity. She’s got fists and a mouth that know no bounds and she punctuates her fury with slang. Guene writes with a disarming candor and adds emphasis at the end of her sentences with a punch of vulgarity. She’s nothing if not down to earth. She’s not interested in humoring you.

  Does her new novel, Some Dream for Fools, have a plot? Not much. It’s more like a montage of rapid sketches of life in a housing project outside Paris called Insurrection, with a couple tenuous plot threads, her big-sister determination to keep her brother in school and out of neighborhood crime, and her brief romantic fling with a mysterious, sexy stranger from Eastern Europe. Both of those plot-lines develop slightly and give the narrative a bit of an arc, but it’s not her plot that you read Guene for, and really, it’s not her characters, either. It’s her voice.

  Her first novel, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, is narrated by tough, blunt thirteen-year-old Doria from Morocco, fighting to survive in the Paradise housing projects just outside Paris – and to grow up at the same time. But Doria is nobody’s victim. She’s ready to take on the neighbors, the neighborhood, the world, before she’ll admit defeat. Her single-parent mother is a cleaning lady at Formula One Motel, where the maids are about to go on strike. Helped by shrinks and social workers, kissed and then snubbed by an irritating boy, all Doria really wants is to feel needed, useful and loved. Her no-holds-barred take on life as an impoverished outsider in France marked the astonishing debut of a sixteen-year-old Algerian immigrant writing her first hilariously deadpan, touchingly vulnerable novel.

  Ahleme, the narrator of her second novel, Some Dream for Fools, is twelve years older than Doria but fired up with the same spirit. She’s got her hands more than full taking care of her brain-injured father while trying to raise her wild, sixteen-year-old brother. Which means she doesn’t get to spend too much time with her two girlfriends, each of whom suffers the attentions of a boyfriend while Ahleme walks through life alone. Until, that is, she meets Tonislav while waiting to renew her residency permit, and Ahleme finds her sensible, no-nonsense self suddenly behaving like someone who’s gone stupid with love.

  Guene belongs in the company of Marjane Satrapi and Amelie Nothomb. Her three-page description of what it’s like to suffer falling out of love is breathtaking in its punchy candor and pitiless truthfulness. When she finds a shoebox under the bed with bundles of bills, you’ll be just as aghast as her younger brother when he turns on the lights and finds her sitting in his dark bedroom, furiously waiting for him. There’s nothing halfway about Ahleme.

  Faiza Guene writes with so much confidence and in-your-face self-knowledge that I laughed all the way through the novel and came away from it saddened by the grim terms of an immigrant’s life but with experiencing a rather pleasant, residual buoyancy of feisty defiance.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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