Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Her question was exactly what he feared—that Lahcen’s assurances of help would give Zohra hope, a hope that he knew would eat away at her determination to let him go…

I have been a fan of Laila Lalami’s Moorish Girl for over a year and I suspected—knew—that I would like her novel. But how did I know that? Moorish Girl isn’t a very audaciously personal blog; it’s mostly a collection of stories about writers and writing from around the world; she doesn’t write much about herself. Having read—and loved—the novel, I can see now what I should have been able to guess about how the two connect. Her blog is really interested in the outside world. Her entries often cover the way that writers run afoul of politics and the way that novels teach us things that are hard to learn from the newspaper.

Her novel, too, is all about the way that politics intrudes on individual dreams. The conceit is simple, and elegant. The opening chapter details a brief, harrowing journey from Morocco to Spain in a little Zodiac lifeboat. Then, four chapters give us the backstory of each of four characters from the boat—what led them to make this dangerous choice. Four more chapters detail what happens after Spain: some are deported and must resume life in Morocco, others, in Spain, face new challenges; all remain poorer than they want to be; all remain poor.

There’s a lot to like about this short, moving book. Many images haunt me still. Here’s one: as the Zodiac nears the shore, the captain orders everyone to swim the final yards to shore. Murad must shake off the desperate clinging of a young girl who cannot swim; he cannot save himself and her both. Ashore, he is not only dogged by guilt but also arrested. He feels utterly defeated. Then, catching sight of her in the same police station, he feels relieved and elated that she is still alive. The quick, unsentimental extremity of emotions here, the way that being arrested seems like an end to him until he thinks to be relieved that the arrested girl is at least alive, seemed precisely right to me. There are lots of moments like this here—lots for you to enjoy when you turn to it yourself.