Review: Underground Book Club Blog
by Dimitri Nasrallah
A novel of immigration. A narrative that transacts with Canada, but it
is not about Canada. A novel that explores multiculturalism, but it is
not bound by Trudeau- or even Mulroney-era pieties. A novel about the
New Quebec that doesn't mention nationalism (or at least Quebecois
nationalism). A novel of immigration that speaks to the world.
Niko is a boy born in Lebanon during that country's civil war in the
1980s. His father owns a camera shop. It's bombed. His mother writes
scripts. She's killed. The boy is six, and what is the father to do?
They scramble to find a way out. They make it first to Cypress, then a
small Greek Island. Nobody wants them, and their money is running out.
Taking advantage of the best offer available, Niko's father ships him to
Montreal to live with his late-wife's sister. He promised to come for
him as soon as possible, then he takes a job on a cargo boat. The job
provides money, but it doesn't get him any closer to Montreal. His
passport has long since expired. He seems permanently cut off from his
son, so he signs up for the first boat heading for the Americas. If he
can only get across the Atlantic, he will walk the rest of the way. The
boat, heading for the southern hemisphere, sinks and Niko's father
drifts in the ocean until he is rescued.
There are other major plot points that I won't give away. As you can
see, however, while the book may be titled after the boy, a great part
of the story is about the father. Once the father is lost in South
America, though, the reader's focus returns to Niko, now a teenager and
shoplifting food in Montreal. His aunt and uncle are anxious to secure
their citizenship, so that they can finally begin anew in their new
country. Eventually, they all conclude that Niko's father is dead, but
an unlikely reunion is on the horizon.
Written in swift, clear prose, this book clips along nicely, covering
vast personal, political and geographic territory. It is also a
tremendously tender book. Love pulses from cover to cover. The pain
caused by the separation of individuals, both physical and ideological,
is the subject and cause of the book. Niko and his father are separated
by geography. The warring factions in Lebanon (and elsewhere) are
separated by the failure to recognize each other's humanity. In the
various diaspora's around the world, these differences do not disappear,
but they are more easily contextualized, minimized, and set aside in
favour of more essential human bonds.
Niko is a lovely novel and a significant achievement by a young writer with much to say.
- Michael Bryson
September 2, 2011