An American son and his immigrant father search for belonging and reconciliation in the age of Trump.
A deeply personal novel of identity and belonging in a nation coming apart at the seams, Homeland Elegies blends fact and fiction to tell an epic story of longing and dispossession in the world that 9/11 made. At its heart it is the story of a father, a son and the country they both call home.
Bracing, original and gloriously readable, it offers a snapshot of a world in which debt has ruined countless lives and the gods of finance rule, where immigrants live in fear, and where the unhealed wounds of 9/11 continue to wreak havoc.
Ranging from the heartland towns of America to palatial suites in Central Europe, to guerrilla lookouts in the mountains of Afghanistan, this is a novel written in love and anger which spares no one, least of all the author himself.
In his opening letter to the reader, the author shares that he wrote this book “in something of a fever dream” following the death of his mother, the election of Donald Trump and when his father was showing signs of decline. He wanted to reflect on what had brought his parents from Pakistan to America fifty years earlier, their lives, their hopes and dreams for themselves, as well as for their children, whose homeland was America, how the country had changed and what those changes had meant for all of them. However, he insists that this is a novel, not a work of autobiography, that “as a writer who has always felt the need to deform actual events enough to be able to see them more clearly, I have not resisted the inclination here.”
When I read this, and knowing that the narrator of the story shares the same name, personal history and professional career as the author, I did wonder whether I’d feel constantly distracted, maybe even irritated, by wanting to try to separate fact from fiction. However, I needn’t have worried because the author’s observations, whether of family relationships, national or global events, political manoeuvrings, racial and religious bigotry, xenophobia, the vast divide between the rich and the poor, the debt culture, sex, the death of the American Dream (and much, much more) felt not only unsparingly honest, but also disturbingly recognisable. Even if not everything described had been experienced by the author, it felt without doubt that they had happened to someone and that underpinned the story with a disturbing authenticity.
The story is divided into eight chapters which move backwards and forwards in time and place, incorporating a huge number of themes. These range from deeply personal reflections on family relationships and conflict, a man struggling to discover who he is in a world which defines him by the colour of his skin and being a Muslim, tensions between a son born in America and his immigrant father, to almost essay-like analyses of the wider social, political and economic issues which have shaped America, as well as the rest of the world, in recent decades. This could have felt disjointed but for me it never did because it allowed the author to demonstrate the impact this inextricable intertwining of the personal and the political has on his characters’ lives. I found that this sense of a ‘wholeness’ was reinforced by the two short chapters which ‘book-ended’ the story. The first, ‘Overture: America’, showed the narrator as a student, with his benign views about his country of birth already being challenged by the prescient observations of one of his professors. The second, ‘Free Speech: A Coda’, showed him and that same professor reunited as, together, they address a group of her current students against a culture in which feeling able to speak freely is becoming ever-more difficult.
Throughout the story the author’s prose is supremely eloquent, passionate and thought-provoking. Although it’s immediately engaging, compelling and page-turning in its intensity, nevertheless, as I was reading I found myself needing to stop frequently, either to think about something which I found challenged me to think about something in a different way, or just to re-read a section which so clearly and precisely captured what had led to a particular moment in history. Just one example: his reflections on Trump’s unexpected, to many, rise to power made total sense when seen against the background of an increasingly ‘corporate autocracy’ the pursuit of personal wealth and rampant consumerism, all of which had led to an even wider divide between the richest and the poorest, leaving so many Americans feeling disenfranchised, scared and angry. Trump had accurately read the national mood and knew exactly what promises to make to make their lives better, careless of whether or not he’d be able to make good on them. As I was reading, I was reminded of some of the parallels in Britain, where a similar feeling of disillusionment and marginalisation had led to the 2016 referendum and Brexit. However, from start to finish of this remarkable story there are many similar examples of the author’s skill in teasing-out the salient points of all of his arguments and observations. His portrayal of a narrator who was prepared to examine, often with brutal honesty, his own attitudes, prejudices and beliefs added to his moral authority to challenge and question those of other people.
An elegy is a song of mourning, a reflection on what has been lost and Homeland Elegies has a sense of loss and mourning running through its core. By the time I’d finished reading I felt that I’d seen not only into the heart and soul of the narrator’s life, his struggles with identity and how to present himself to a world which viewed him with suspicion, but also into the heart and soul of a nation, and a world, which has lost its moral compass and was so profoundly changed by 9/11. This is such an insightful, challenging and thought-provoking story (although it does also contain some very humorous moments!) that it feels impossible to encapsulate its complexity in a short review. What I can do is urge you to read it and discover for yourself the insights this story offers.
Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with his play Disgraced, about the challenges faced by upwardly mobile Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 era – I believe his superb Homeland Elegies would be a worthy winner of second Pulitzer.
With thanks to the publisher and NB for my copy in exchange for an unbiased review – I wish I could give it more than 5*!
Review by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: *****
Group read: *****
Tinder Press (imprint of Headline Publishing Group) 08/09/2020