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- Published on Amazon.com
Not very much "beur" literature has made its way to the U.S. in English translation, so it's nice to see that Guene's French bestseller made the voyage since originally appearing in 2004 (and in 25 other languages since). The term "beur" is a French slang term referring to Arab North African (Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian) immigrants living in France, and generally includes those who've been born in France. Like most immigrant populations, it's one that's been largely marginalized, with all the attendant social problems that leads to (witness the widespread riots of late 2005). Here, the beur experience is voiced by a 15-year-old Moroccan girl, Doria, who lives with her mother in a large tower block in suburban Paris projects. Abandoned by their father/husband, who moved back to Morocco to wed a woman who would produce a son, the two women live an impoverished life of thrift store clothes, shiny social workers, food vouchers, school counselors, and minimum wage jobs.
In very brief (generally 3-6 page) chapters, Doria rambles on about her day to day life, which she spends largely isolated from her peers and fairly bitter about the die fate has cast for her. However, she's not a shallow teenybopper griping about her wardrobe (although that is a significant problem), rather, she's aware enough to understand the long-term hopelessness of her and her mother's situation and righteous enough to be angry about it. There's not a lot of plot, the book follows more of a journal format as a series of small scenes. The main topics are her running crush on an older local ex-dealer, interludes with various social workers, tutoring by a nerdish boy, watching TV, her first kiss, a job babysitting, and the start of hairdressing school. Interwoven with all this is the to-be-expected critique of the traditional Arab patriarchy, which comes out not only through her own story, but that of her mother's best friend, as well as that of a neighborhood girl kept imprisoned by her father and brother. While valid, it gets a little too heavy handed at times, as do some of the book's symbolism. For example, the projects they live in are called "Paradise Estates" and when the daughter and mother visit the Eiffel Tower, they can't afford the tickets to ride up it. One somewhat surprising conclusion one can draw from the book is that despite the general structural deficiencies of modern French society, some of the social safeguards actually do help (such as the welfare assistance delivered by various grating women, or the free job training offered to the mother).
Somewhat unfairly, various critics have compared this debut to White Teeth, The Catcher in the Rye, and (oddly) Bridget Jones's Diary, which is somewhat overselling it. Guene is not nearly the stylistic talent Zadie Smith is, nor is the book as comic (or navelgazing) as the Bridget Jones' series, and thankfully, it's not as lame as the Salinger's vastly overrated book. Instead, this is a quick-reading worthwhile portrait of a side of French society that needs more visibility, and a story which ends on a somewhat hopeful note. It seems like perhaps a good book to use with teenagers to discuss issues of multiculturalism and class, as it is quite short and easily digested.