Isabella Hammad’s much-hyped debut novel begins on a ship bound for France in 1914, when its young and uncertain protagonist is struck with a sudden sense of loneliness. His name is Midhat Kamal and he is one of only two Arabs on board. Midhat has left his family home in Palestine to study medicine in Montpellier. But on a boat full of Europeans, heading to a cold, foreign country, he is oppressed by a new awareness of his body:
He became conscious of his back against the bench, a sensation that was bizarrely painful. He was aware of his legs extending from his pelvis. His nose, usually invisible, doubled and intruded on his vision.
It is painful to be young and oneself and out of place. Living with his French hosts, the Molineu family, Midhat initially feels timid and lost. In time, though, he starts to make friends at the university. He falls in love with Jeanette Molineu, the beautiful daughter. Like