In Search of 'Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits'

Alan Cheuse reviews Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Lalami's first book of fiction focuses on a group of North African immigrants seeking a better life in Spain.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Moroccans crossing the Straits of Gibraltar make up the cast of characters in Laila Lalami's first book of fiction. It's called "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits." Alan Cheuse has a review.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

There's a certain awkwardness to the architecture of this book. We're presented with what appear to be linked stories with an odd time frame. First comes the collective narrative of the dangerous, if brief, voyage in a small boat from North Africa to the waters off Tarifa, Spain. Then come individual stories of the preparations for the trip by the four main characters: an Islamist student named Faten, who gets in trouble with her school and decides to flee; Halima, a Casablanca housewife tired of beatings by a drunken husband; Aziz, a devoted husband who's ready to leave his wife and their decrepit apartment in a poor neighborhood of Casablanca and seek his fortune in Spain; and Murad, a literate Tangier portside hustler desperate for a future. How they nearly drown in the crossing, then how they made up their minds and made their plans to make the journey in the first place--we hear all this and finally we get to witness the effects of these desperate acts of self-exile.

Despite the broken time line, this all works because the force of the subject matter carries the day. Illegal immigration with all of its hopes and miseries usually brings to the minds of American readers the suffering border between us and Mexico. Here the attempt to navigate the barrier between Morocco and Spain takes on just as much poignancy.

After working for several years as a busboy in Madrid, Aziz, the devoted husband, pays a visit to his wife and mother in Casablanca and the women break into a long ululation. I don't know that I'd go that far in praise of this first book, but I'd come close.

NORRIS: The book is "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" by Laila Lalami. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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