California-born Alireza Courdee, known to his friends as Rez, is fourteen when this story starts and nineteen when it finishes. The son of wealthy and successful first-generation immigrants (his father is a Kurd from Iran and his mother is from Syria) he has so far lived a privileged life, never knowing what it is to go without or to live in fear. Although he occasionally feels torn between two cultures, essentially he appears to be living the American dream, a dream and freedom his parents fled the Islamic Revolution to find. They have worked hard to achieve this and want Rez to appreciate his good fortune. His father is strict and unrelenting in the high standards he sets for his son, physically venting his rage on him when Rez gets a B in a school history test. Although Rez wants to do well and to eventually go to university, for now he just loves hanging-out with a group of white school-friends who have, apparently, accepted him into their tight-knit clique. Surfing, getting stoned and, hopefully, losing his virginity, now become more important priorities than constantly striving to excel at school, inevitably leading to increasing conflicts with his parents, particularly his father.
However, in post-9/11 America and as the child of middle-eastern immigrants, a true sense of identity is hard to come by. A sudden falling-out with his white friends, the Boston Marathon bombing and then a terrorist attack on a shopping mall closer to home, all combine to expose how superficial his acceptance into the white community has been. He discovers that the colour of his skin, his religion, even though he is not a practising Muslim, and the fact that his parents are immigrants all lead to him being seen as a potential terrorist. This open hostility makes him feel rejected, confused, lost and isolated but new friends, Arash, a Muslim student, and the beautiful Fatima, draw him into a new circle which offers the promise of comfort and acceptance. However, it is a circle which will prove to be as disturbing as it is consoling.
Through the eyes of Rez, Laleh Khadivi powerfully captures the struggles of a young adolescent whose sudden realisation that his acceptance in the community of his birth is so fragile, leaving him feeling very isolated and aimless, makes him look for alternative sources of acceptance, support and comfort. In a sensitive and insightful way, she drew me into Rez’s world. I could feel how his hurt, his anger, his confusion, all contributed to what felt like an inevitable journey towards radicalisation. Her thought-provoking observations about this process really brought home how a vulnerable, but idealistic, young person can be persuaded by promises of a truer, a better, a more worthwhile life. Rez had grown up with his father extolling America, and the opportunities it had offered him and his family, as “a good country”. However, when this was no longer Rez’s experience, he felt forced to seek an alternative “good country” and to go in search of his roots.
In the early stages of the story I found it easy to identify with its exploration of the world of young people, with their mixture of careless hedonism, idealism, false bravado and underlying anxieties. I thought that she captured this journey towards an eventual coming of age in a convincing and evocative way, using the vernacular of this age group to very good effect. Her descriptions of the surfing, recreational use of drugs and almost frantic need for sexual exploration were equally convincing as a reflection of the increasingly fast-moving world adolescents are trying to negotiate.
When the story became much more disturbing was when I felt thrust into the very different world Rez was starting to occupy, one where the conflicts he was facing were extreme and very disturbing. I had become so fond of him by this point that I wanted nothing more than to be able to protect him from people who were willing to exploit his confusion, innocence, idealism and naïvety. I wanted to stop him hurtling towards a point of no return. I wanted to “buy him time” on his journey towards adulthood and maturity. I think that the author captured this transition from idealism to fundamentalism in a way which felt psychologically convincing, and therefore deeply disturbing. Her descriptions of Rez’s experiences made me reflect on the sense of security you get by feeling that you belong absolutely in your community/country and whether, as an immigrant, or even the child of an immigrant, this absolute certainty is ever possible. If it isn’t, what are the possible ramifications of this feeling of rejection and marginalisation?
I enjoyed Laleh Khadivi’s writing style, it is lyrical, almost poetic at times. However, her acute observations of a darker reality give it an edgy quality and it is this, combined with her unrelenting examination of the effects of alienation, which at times makes for an uncomfortable and disturbing reading experience. There is something very precise, yet nuanced, in her use of language which, for me, is encapsulated in her three epitaphs, which offer three definitions of the word “radical”. As soon as I read these I realised that the precision and complexity of language is probably very important to her in her search for authenticity in her story-telling. I enjoyed her vivid and convincing characterisations, with every single one of her characters seeming to leap off the page, demanding to be listened to. One thing which I initially found to be a bit confusing was the lack of punctuation for dialogue but once I had adjusted to this, I found that it in fact enabled me to feel much more intimately engaged with Rez’s thought-processes.
This is the third book in a trilogy, with the first two being about the struggles faced by Rez’s grandfather and father, struggles which led to his father emigrating to America. Although this book can very easily be read as an unforgettable, stand-alone story, I think that I would have got even more from it had I read about the personal and historical influences which had shaped Rez’s family. However, A Good Country has made such an impression on me, with its examination of such a contemporary dilemma, that I will now read the first two books. I know that I will then welcome the opportunity to reread this one, thereby gaining a new, and deeper, perspective and understanding.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi
Bloomsbury Publishing 9781408876039 pbk Jun 2018