Review: Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

Synopsis: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans residents Kathy & Abdulrahman are cast into unthinkable struggle with forces beyond wind & water. Abdulrahman has stayed on in the city, traversing its deeply flooded streets by canoe, feeding trapped dogs & rescuing survivors. But nothing could prepare him for the nightmare that followed.

Title: Zeitoun
Author: Dave Eggers
Publisher: McSweeney’s
Pub Date: 1st March 2010
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9780241144848

Rating

“It only takes one person, one small act of stepping from the dark to the light.”

When I reviewed The Circle a while back, I commented on Egger’s writing style, his flat characters and, despite all the flaws I found in his book, how immensely enjoyable it was. Since then, I’ve recommended his book to at least a dozen people and have raved about how the book is a million times better than the film – nothing new there then!

Then a friend recommended Zeitoun, so much so that he gave me his beautiful signed hardback edition. I promised to read the hallowed tome it at home – I didn’t want anything happening to it whilst it was in my care!

What I didn’t know was that Zeitoun is a non-fiction – humph! I wanted another thrilling experience, not a factual account of Hurricane Katrina…

…Boy, was I wrong to judge!

I did keep my promise in the end: I didn’t take the book out of the house. Not because I wanted to protect it, however, but because I didn’t leave until I had finished.

I live in the UK and, though I can sympathise with people who suffer from hurricanes and other natural disasters, I can’t fully empathise. I mean, our train lines die with a centimetre of snow! Reading about just how bad things get not just during the storm itself, but in the aftermath, was eye-opening and incredibly harrowing.

Where I disliked Egger’s simple writing in The Circle, I loved it here. His voice is almost invisible, it’s Zeitoun’s story that takes the fore. Only a truly talented author can make you forget he is even there!

Zeitoon isn’t just about the story of Hurricane Katrina, however, it’s about our friendly protagonist and his family. Zeitoon’s quiet dedication to his work and the people around him is astounding and, on multiple occasions, he reminded me of the men in my family (we are Iranian)… So naturally, I became completely and utterly emotionally attached. Suddenly his pain was mine and, if you’ve read the book, you’ll realise how unbearable that pain becomes.

“His frustration with some Americans was like that of a disappointed parent. He was so content in this country, so impressed with and loving of its opportunities, but then why, sometimes, did Americans fall short of their best selves?”

Because this story isn’t just about surviving a category 5 hurricane, it’s about how quickly society turns to finding scapegoats when things go wrong. Injustices rationalised by ‘The War on Terror’ have repeatedly been shown to be nothing but a bureaucratic, racist, fear-mongering mess. The failed state tactics in this case led to the prioritisation of building make-shift prisons over providing basic provisions to those in dire need.

I won’t go into too much detail about Zeitoon’s ordeal because, however awful it is to admit, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. What makes the book heart-breaking, in my opinion, is the slow and painful loss of his faith in the country he adopted. Now that made for difficult reading.

All in all a masterfully written, beautiful, and heart-breaking tale.

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