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Wednesday, September 1st, 2004



by Lorraine Adams

9/11: The Novel

A review by Anna Godbersen

The inevitable genre of 9/11 fiction is an iffy prospect to be sure. For starters, the event is too recent for readers to approach with any detachment. Perhaps more damning, from an aesthetic point of view, are its obviously novelistic aspects: How many times have we read about the strange beauty of the day, or the irony of our own planes being used as weapons against us? No writer could claim these as their own literary innovations. Lorraine Adam's debut novel, Harbor, addresses the issues of a post-9/11 world, but she wisely sets it away from the main event.

Harbor focuses on Aziz Arkoun, an Algerian living in pre-9/11 Boston, and his friends. The novel opens with his disorienting trip to America as a stowaway on a tanker; Adams writes these passages with an unflinching attention to the physical degradation of the experience. Once safely ashore, Aziz is taken in by his shady cousin Rafik and Rafik's American girlfriend, Heather. The circle soon includes Mourad, Aziz's younger brother, who has managed to get a legitimate visa; the depressed but magnetic Ghazi, another stowaway; and the criminal Kamal, an old friend of Rafik's. They live crowded together in Boston apartments and work low-wage jobs; they go clubbing and seem to get a lot of play. The doings of Kamal and Rafik, the unsavory elements in Aziz's circle, eventually attract the attention of the FBI, and the life that he has been trying to create is put in jeopardy. Adams unfolds all this with artful suspense, cutting between the American thread of Aziz's story and his horrific experience with Islamist militants back home. While the lure of fundamentalist violence exists, vaguely, for some of these men, they are for the most part a reasonable and loving bunch. Aziz especially is a philosophical, hopeful, and overwhelmingly sympathetic character.

There is a self-conscious topicality to this tale, and the writing can at times feel overly reportorial. (Adams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and it shows in the research she put into this novel.) But Adams can be poetic, too, and the portrait she draws of these men's relationships and psyches is complex, vibrant, and imaginative. The result is as compelling as it is necessary.

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