By October 8, 2010 1 Comments Read More →

Discussing The Reluctant Fundamentalist

images-1This week my book group discussed Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

If you haven’t read this book, here is a bit of background–it’s been described by many as a thriller and for a literary novel it is surprisingly hard to put down. It is narrated entirely by one man, Changez, a Pakistani man who invites a man who he takes as an American tourist into a restaurant in Lahore where he begins to tell him the story of his life. Changez grew up in a once-wealthy family in Pakistan, attended college in America at Princeton and started a prestigious job at a valuing company before his view of himself and his adopted country radically changes in the wake of September 11th. Now he is speaking with affection and criticism of America, about his unrequited love of an American woman, his conflicted identity and his return to his homeland to a man who grows increasingly anxious, suspicious.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist draws on our sense of terror or suspicion through a beguiling, unreliable narrator. One of my book group members confessed to feeling that Changez’s narration was sinister. Some questions we discussed: The title (always a good place to start or conclude a discussion). Are they both marked men? Does one kill the other?

Mohsin Hamid spoke to this tension in an interview, when his book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize:

The novel is just a conversation between two men, one of whom we never hear, and yet many people have said it feels like a thriller. The reason for that is we are already afraid. We have been led to believe that we live in a world where terrorism is as likely to kill us as cancer or cholesterol, where the ability to engage in dispassionate, impersonal, politically-motivated homicide is not an aberration but rather natural. We have been encouraged to lose a sense of perspective. And so the fear provoked by the novel is within us.

Hamid plays with America’s distorted view of terrorism in the world. Our book group talked around this issue–but we did make note of the recent stories about terrorist plots and discouraging Americans traveling in Europe. This book was difficult to talk about at times. For one, the title itself brought up issues of religion and politics, a no fly zone in most book groups. What does it mean to be a fundamentalist?

The ending of the book is ambiguous and, to a certain degree, says as much about the reader as anything else. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is hard to discuss because it really does provide a mirror for a complex set of issues our country and our world is still unable to honestly examine; we’re all in the fulcrum of the no fly zone–that intersection of politics and religion and nationality that media sound bytes cannot fully represent, unpack or alter.

This is a book I wouldn’t mind rereading and rediscussing, because I feel that we barely scratched the surface. I would love to hear from other groups who have already discussed The Reluctant Fundamentalist. How did it go and did you, too, walk away with lingering questions, about the book and about yourself?

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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