Book: Zeitoun
Author: Dave Eggers
Publisher : Hamish Hamilton
Rating: ****
Due for release: 10th March 2010

Tackling a subject as contentious as the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina is a brave and risky act by any novelist. However, Eggers’ truthfulness and unrelenting exposure of the inhumane treatment of a markedly ordinary man pays off, inciting the reader to a level of anger, frustration and fascination seldom accomplished in modern literature.

Eggers tells the true story of a man and his family during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the population of New Orleans evacuate to avoid the forthcoming hurricane, protagonist Zeitoun, devoted to his self-made company, decides to remain alone to brave the storm. The reader shares in his family’s frustrations at this decision, quelled only partially by Zeitoun’s explanation of previously overhyped or mistaken hurricane warnings. This frustration increases as the situation rapidly worsens in an unexpected twist.

Eggers’ collaboration with Zeitoun creates a unique genre that allows a real person’s life to be both panoramically and minutely depicted through the pen of an experienced novelist. This gives the reader the best of both worlds: the style grips you without losing the truthfulness of the account. Most effective is Zeitoun’s temporary silence in the narrative as his wife increasingly fears he is dead: a technique which emotionally exhausts the reader, thus allowing a real empathy with his wife.

The novel raises some questions on the importance of the media and its ability to manipulate: the discrepancy between what Zeitoun can see happening and what his wife hears reported makes the reader question what they really “know” about New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, and thus raises larger questions about censorship and knowledge. However, the dominant and most striking response to this novel is an unabated anger towards the US government.

As Zeitoun’s treatment worsens, the reader cannot help but feel incredulity that such a situation could occur under a supposedly democratic, modern government. In the book Zeitoun draws parallels between their situation and that of those held captive in Guantanamo Bay asking whether such poor management of the situation might not just be a one-off mistake during a crisis, but a merciless policy where the threat of terrorism apparently justifies the incessant and merciless abuse of human rights. It is this sense of anger and injustice that stays with the reader and this that makes the novel not only a gripping read but an important voice of rebellion against such violations.

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