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The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid, Two Roads Book Club, Will SchwalbeOn the sixth meeting of our Two Roads Book Club, not only did we have a book that had been on many of our ‘to read’ piles for years, but we FINALLY had the inspiration behind our book club, Will Schwalbe, in the room with us. After months of emails back and forth about our reading list, we were able to celebrate in style with the man himself. We met in the Library at the Hospital Club and settled down to discuss The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

For those who haven’t read this, it’s a novel set in the years following 9/11, and tackles, through the engaging, articulate words of its narrator Changez, what it is to be a Pakistani living in the suspicious, terrorism-altered Western world. The novel is brief, and the narration takes place during the course of one long evening in a Lahore café. The reader, addressed as ‘you’, takes on the persona of an American businessman or CIA agent – the exact occupation and reason for his presence in Lahore is never made clear – and is approached by a bearded young gentleman, who invites himself to join ‘you’ at ‘your’ table. Over the course of cups of tea, snacks and a delicious evening meal, the stranger, who introduces himself as Changez, describes his life during the years he lived in America, interspersed with snapshots of Lahore life.

Amongst the group we decided that the ending was such an important moment in the novel that the only way to begin a discussion about The Reluctant Fundamentalist was to start at the end. The ambiguous ending exposed us each as a particular type of reader based on whether we believed that the American was the pursued or the pursuer. By leaving the ending open, the author forced us to examine our own subconscious prejudices: who, if either, was the innocent party? One of the main concepts that we struggled with in the book was the concept of the single narrator – how could we trust what we were told, was the American across the table even there, how could we fully understand the situation from such a blinkered viewpoint? We were required to suspend our disbelief about the unrealistic conversation and be moved where the narrator wanted to take us.

Our book club was an eclectic mix, and the addition of three Americans made for a lively debate. The Greek holiday where Changez notices the lack of refinement amongst his American peers rang true amongst all those in the discussion – a certain level of embarrassment about our Western ability to be impolite, brash and make those around us uncomfortable with our aggressive nature. Another element of the novel which caused great uproar was the relationship between Changez and Erica – was he cruel in his role as her deceased boyfriend, or did his actions give her closure? The men amongst the group felt that he was acting for her, whilst the women differed entirely believing that this encounter was the final push towards an unhinged mind. Did he abuse her trust in order to relieve his own sexual needs?

There were countless themes and symbols within the novel for a book group discussion, and we could have sat for many more hours discussing the intricate themes, but once we had pushed as far as the book’s similarities to Hamlet we realised we were perhaps taking it a little far. One element that we agreed on entirely was the power of the written word to teach us about other people and the impact of large events, such as 9/11, beyond the initial reaction. The novel forced us to examine our own prejudices and we enjoyed the experience of having to re-examine our thought processes.

As our discussion moved on to Will’s personal experiences in publishing and stories of the power of the book, including his mother’s involvement in setting up Afghan libraries for those who have never seen a written book in their own language, we were left imagining not being able to read . . . The Two Roads Book Club couldn’t imagine a world without books, discussion and learning and we were warmed by Will’s complete adoration of books and their impact.

We gave The Reluctant Fundamentalist 3 out of 4 stars. Not all of us enjoyed reading the book, but we loved the discussion it led to. If you want to have a look at our book club, have a watch here:

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