[I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. This review was originally posted at Iris on Books
Khosi Saqr has lived in Butte, Montana all his life. He is a tour guide at the museum, and he helps his mother with her catering business by tasting her food. As a little bit of an obsessive compulsive, he likes order in his life. Every night before he leaves the museum, he makes sure all the documents and pencils are sorted. When he was a child, he sorted the colouring pencils making sure he did not overuse one colour in favour of another. His life in Butte is comfortable, though you can locate cracks in his comfort. When his long-time friend (and love) tells him on the evening of the annual Evel Knievel Days festival that she is engaged to marry someone else, the safety of his world comes tumbling down..
Earlier that day, someone visited him in the museum, a mysterious stranger that seemed excessively interested in Khosi. Khosi was raised by his mother, his father fleeing the country and his family debts - leaving behind his three-year-old son and his wife. Khosi has always been happy with his mother, but now he feels he needs to know more about his father. Receiving the final push when he realises his long-time love may not wait for him, he decides that it is time to be a little adventurous. And so, Khosi travels to Egypt to find his father.
If I am completely honest, I was not sure if I should agree to read and review this book when I received the query in my mailbox. I felt the execution of the premise could go both ways - it could be horribly clichéd and painful to read, or it might turn out wonderfully layered and lovely. A boy growing up in a local town, with a festival, with a local museum, missing intimate knowledge of his father's side of the family, travelling to Egypt, which has all too often been portrayed in an orientalist fashion in fiction. I was hesitant. I wish I could say I was not, but I was. How do you decide if a book is for you or not? In this case, I waited a few days, contemplated the book a little. And then I saw a tweet by Bellezza, about how she was loving it. That convinced me that the best thing to see whether I would like it or not was to try reading it. And boy am I glad I did.
"See: I think that Tolstoy was wrong. Unhappy families are all alike. They're all alike in this moment - in this pause before something happens, in the pause before someone reacts. And that pause: It can last seconds or minutes or days or months or years."
Khosi Saqr is one of the main reasons that I enjoyed Evel Knievel Days so much. He is incredibly smart, but has also lived in a safety bubble created by himself his whole life. He never left home for college, he never travelled on his own, he is afraid of losing his friends who are all moving to other places for their jobs. He never mentions the fact that he might be limiting himself in his experiences, he never comes out to say he might be a little unhappy - and I'm not sure if he is, really. He doesn't wallow, he is satisfied, he is humorous, but he is also observant, and he will not hide from the painful. He never outright tells you that he is an obsessive compulsive, but you read about it, in his descriptions, his observations, and his behaviour; Khosi is caught up in a struggle to keep some form of control over his life.. It is the way in which the reader is told these things that made me unable to look away. Instead, I just had to keep on seeing Khosi, and allow him into my heart a little.
"What's it like to be the child of an immigrant? I know and I don't know, both. I have a family tree somewhere, but I don't know where, and it's probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatsoever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it's fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance."
Then there is the way in which Toutonghi handles the question of being a child of parents from different countries - of growing up "between two cultures". There is very little cliché about it. Instead, the pain and the beauty of it are acknowledged, and especially the prejudices of growing up with a father who may be Christian, but by being Egyptian is often easily equated with Islam and radicalism. I loved how Khosi remarks on the Western perception of Islam, of Egypt. Of how we're so selective in what is represented and remembered. As Khosi says, no one seems to know that innovation was praised by Mohammed, because we believe it to be a Western concept. In travelling between Butte and Cairo, Khosi shows us the best and the worst of both places as he perceives it - and he constantly shows us how intelligent he is. Not that he is a boasting sort of character, not at all, but his remarks are just incredibly smart and beautiful.
Was the humour always to my taste? Not always. But I feel as if I am nitpicking, trying to come up with something critical to say about this book. You see, the thing is, it might not be this year's masterpiece, and it might not turn out to be my all-year-favourite, but thinking of this book, all I can think of are the positive, all I can do is smile for fondness.
It was meeting Khosi, and seeing him grow into himself a little, that made me enjoy this book. But it was also Toutonghi's way with words, the numerous quote worthy passages, the many beautiful descriptions. And it was the warmth of the story. I do not think I can find a better word for it, warmth really is the right word to use. Warm and charming and wonderful. I am sure I will be thinking back to Khosi from time to time in the upcoming months. Especially when Egypt pops up in the news again.