Changez is a Pakistani man, educated at Princeton, and brilliant enough to be chosen as one of the few to work at the prestigious New York firm of Underwood Samson. But, all changes after the attacks of 911. Changez tells his story to an unnamed American while they dine in a Pakistani marketplace several years after that fateful day. The reader is introduced to several intriguing characters, not the least of whom is the damaged Erica - Changez' love interest - whose mental stability is shaken by the terrorist attack on America and who slips into a more gentle world of her own imagination.
It is not Changez's story per se which drives the narrative of this compelling novella, but the tone of his voice. Hamid has created a tale which is disturbing and thoughtful, one which questions our national loyalties and examines the distrust which has grown between the Middle East and the United States.
When Changez talks of his attempt to assimilate, the reader is struck by the dishonesty of that attempt:
I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American. The Filipinos we worked with seemed to look up to my American colleagues, accepting them almost instinctively as members of the officer class of global business-and I wanted my share of that respect as well. -From The Reluctant Fundamentalist, page 65-
Later, Changez seems to recognize, for the first time, how ineffectual his efforts are:
Then one of my colleagues asked me a question, and when I turned to answer him, something rather strange took place. I looked at him - at his fair hair and light eyes and, most of all, his oblivious immersion in the minutiae of our work - and thought, you are so foreign. -From The Reluctant Fundamentalist, page 67-
Hamid's prose is exacting and filled with a subtle and disturbing tension. Through Changez's point of view, he reconstructs the anxiety and patriotism following the 911 attacks and provides a view of the United States which is less than flattering - an empire, of sorts, where financial and political concerns outweigh the personal. Changez's place of employment becomes symbolic of a greater force - that which forgets the past and focuses only on a future of wealth and personal gratification.
But, the reader should not be fooled by what appears to be initially an anti-American view of the tensions between the United States and the Middle East (specifically Pakistan). Hamid's message is broader - questioning the essential mistrust on both sides; and providing us with a glimpse of the misunderstandings between governments, as well as people of different cultures.
Mohsin Hamid has constructed a novella which is unsettling in this uncertain time of terrorist threats and the gloom of war in Iraq. It is not a book which is easy to toss aside...but, rather is one whose message should be considered deeply.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007. Recommended. Rated 4/5.