SMALL KINGDOMS by Anastasia Hobbet

Book Quote:

“It was as if growth had been the country’s vengeful response to Saddam. Spanking new three-story cement mansions sat on lots only meters bigger than their outer walls; all the freeways had been rebuilt; and the Cornice along the Gulf had been redesigned in its entirety, stripped bare of its immediate history as a battleground of the war. And everywhere, litter. It blew with the sand and grit of the city, tracing the fence-lines and thoroughfares, and cluttering the flat, dismal beaches. Children, standing on car seats, always unbelted, threw paper cups and candy wrappers from car windows like confetti, opening their little fists into the hot wind.”

Book Review:

Review by Debbie Lee Wesselmann (MAR 7, 2010)

Anastasia Hobbet’s novel about life in Kuwait between Saddam’s invasion of that country and the American invasion of Iraq is both gorgeous in its prose and compelling in its varied perspectives. Kuwait here is a real country, not a geographical footnote to a war, populated by people, both Kuwaiti and not, who navigate the difficult terrain of fear, loyalty, and social conventions. The story follows its characters to the brink of the second war where they, like the country they inhabit, face the changes ahead.

Theo, an American doctor who arrives in Kuwait following the death of his poet father, confounds the Kuwaitis and the Indian doctor for whom he works. Why would he want to work there if he did not have to? Even to the Kuwaitis, the country is a desolate choice for an American. The son of the Indian doctor, Theo’s friend Rajesh, warns that “there’s no more calamitous place on earth than the Middle East,” yet Theo yearns to erase his easy Californian identity for something more poetic: falling in love with a country not his own. When he meets his Arabic tutor, Hanaan, a Palestinian denied Kuwaiti citizenship despite having been spent her entire life there, he is faced with cultural barriers that seem impossible to bridge.

The other American protagonist, Kit, is the wife of an executive assigned to a temporary stint in Kuwait. Like Theo, Kit has recently lost a parent, but, for her, the geographical separation causes her more pain than comfort. Kit finds herself uneasy with the country and its social constructs, and she fears for the safety of her two children as rumors circulate of another attack from Saddam Hussein. At first, Kit is isolated, left mostly alone by her workaholic husband. She finds herself unable to identify with the other wives, who all seem more worldly and adept than she. When she meets her neighbor Mufeeda by accident, she finally glimpses the culture of her host country. Many traditions seem unfathomable to her, while others she finds exhilarating; however, what she learns about the underside of Kuwaiti society shocks her into action.

Kit’s neighbor Mufeeda, a true Kuwait in social standing unlike most of the other characters, is a devout Muslim married to the agnostic Saleh, a doctor and Theo’s colleague. Mufeeda runs her household staff as generously as she can facing the tantrums of her grim mother-in-law. Of all the characters, Mufeeda is the most traditional, a woman of her upbringing and station in life. As much as she hates it at times, she submits to the hierarchy of authority, both within her family and outside. For comfort, she turns to her religion. In one memorable scene, she runs into Kit and the other American women at the market where she finds herself caught between obligatory hospitality and horror at the brash manner of the Americans. Fittingly, she becomes transformed only because, out of an inability to rebel, she is dragged into a situation that confronts her with an ugly truth.

Emmanuella, a maid from India whose entire family depends on her meager salary, works for Mufeeda and, eventually, part-time for Kit. Emmanuella is the most vulnerable of the main characters, as her employers have her passport and can deport her at any moment. She risks everything to help the abused maid next door, and, in the process, finds herself at the mercy of a higher-ranking male servant and Mufeeda’s mother-in-law.

The paths of the characters intersect as the novel progresses, each story touching upon the others. Love, friendship, loyalty, and safety are tested. Theo, especially, makes an excellent guide through the intricacies of Kuwait from an outsider’s perspective, and both Mufeeda and Emmanuella offer what the jacket copy refers to an “Upstairs/Downstairs of the Arab word.” Ironically, given that she seems most modeled on Hobbet’s personal experience, Kit’s character is the least interesting, as her actions and motives are never as complex as the others’. Her naiveté often seems a device used to explain Kuwait to American readers, unnecessary since Hobbet’s descriptive language and other characterizations advance that understanding with ease. By the end, however, Kit is a pivotal character, as her actions propel the resolution for all the others.

Although the individual stories unfold with their own conflicts and outcomes, they share a common theme: challenging the societal norms. Each character faces a point at which he or she risks ostracism or physical danger by following his/her conscience instead of convention. This makes the author’s sensibilities seem typically American, but the novel does not suffer from this perspective; on the contrary, it gets its power from the courage of its characters and its critical dissection of cultural mores.

Perhaps most astonishing in this accomplished novel, Kuwait becomes a place so definite, so well-described that it comes alive on the page. Hobbet’s characters make worthy guides through this country of natives and internationals. Most Americans know Kuwait through images broadcast by CNN during the Gulf War, a country rich in oil but incapable of defending itself. Anastasia Hobbet offers a much more intimate portrait of a country struggling to come to terms with itself.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: Permanent Press (January 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Debbie Lee Wesselmann
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Anastasia Hobbet
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another novel with insight into a Middle East country:

In the Walled Gardens by Anahita Firouz


March 7, 2010 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Middle East, World Lit

One Response

  1. Mary Whipple - March 11, 2010

    I, too, LOVED this book, Debbie. I’m just hoping that this author finds the audience she so richly deserves. The book is accessible, interesting, and absolutely beautifully constructed, everything necessary for a first-class read. Best, Mary Whipple

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