by Rawi Hage
Fellow Montrealer Rawi Hage's first novel, "De Niro's Game" is not a comfortable read, especially for those of us who had family and friends in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, but I was riveted to the book from start to finish. Hage is a skillful and often poetic writer, especially when it comes to creating believable characters in the center of what is often an unbelievably horrible situation. You may not like them, but you won't forget them. His control of the action was complete, and his description of the psychological state of the protagonist was remarkably successful at bringing this reader -- in her North American apartment with reliable running water and electricity, undamaged plaster, and an intact family -- into the surreal claustrophobia of constant war, random death, interrogation, terror, and the shifting loyalty of friends, as well as the alienation of young people facing a mortally dangerous and completely uncertain future.
Readers who aren't familiar with the nuances of Middle Eastern politics may be shocked at what is revealed here, but I found its unflinching truth, seldom accurately reported in the media, most welcome.
Others may be distressed at the way relationships between the sexes are portrayed, but both from my own experience and as an editor, I felt that this view seemed accurate, coming from the narrator, and I thought Hage was courageous in writing the character of his protagonist as he did, knowing readers would assume he himself felt -- or even acted -- the same way. There was little sympathetic balance to this male point of view; I wished we had learned more about the lives and psyches of the two young women with whom he becomes involved, not to mention the mother, aunt, and stepmother whose behavior is criticized but not fully explained.
But the impact of "De Niro's Game" hinges, in fact, on the description of a lot of so-called "negative" behavior and the way the author simply lays it out as fact, for us to digest and deal with. The questions that remain - how would I have acted in his place? in her place? - are the source of both its lingering discomfort and its power.
This comment was also posted as a review at my site on Goodreads.