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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Harbor

Lorraine Adams won a Pulitzer prize as an investigative journalist for the Washington Post some seven years before she stumbled upon the newspaper story that would eventually inspire her 2004 debut novel. That novel, Harbor, would also prove to be a prize winner by being named “Book of the Year” by both the Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly and being awarded with the Los Angeles Times 2004 book prize for first fiction.

Although most of its action takes place in Boston, Harbor is really a story about the breakdown of society in modern Algeria, a country that for too many years suffered the slaughter of its population at the hands of several Muslim extremists groups, the army charged with protecting the population, and the corrupt government that, at times, seemed to welcome the carnage. It is said that over 100,000 people died in those few years, most of them butchered, and many thousands of them decapitated for the purpose of terrorizing those who might fight back.

Aziz Arkoun, and hundreds more like him who could not find work that would allow them to marry and move from the home of their parents, would make their way illegally to the United States, willing to risk their lives and leave everything they knew behind in hope of a better life. After 52 days as a stowaway on a tanker, Aziz finds himself in a near frozen Boston harbor, jumps overboard, and barely survives his swim to shore. He speaks not a word of English, has no money, and no plan other than to contact another Algerian, the one person that might help him.

In what seems to him a miracle, Aziz overhears two people on the street speaking Arabic and, after throwing himself at their mercy, he is taken into the home of one of the men until he is well enough to contact his “cousin” who lives just a few miles away. Aziz finds himself living in a cramped apartment with other Algerian illegals, a little support group to which he would remain attached for several years while he and the others struggled to learn English and find work, no matter what it might pay.

Unfortunately for Aziz and his friends, his “cousin” is not one to work for anything as low as minimum wage and he makes his own living by smuggling everything from drugs, to designer clothes, to what the FBI believes might be explosive chemicals. The FBI, in its effort to prove that the Algerians are a threat to the country (a full year prior to 9-11), links bits and pieces of evidence together into what becomes a wider and wider net that threatens to haul in the innocent along with anyone that might be guilty.

Adams does not avoid the horrific truth of what was happening in Algeria in the early nineties and, in fact, describes one murder in such brutal detail that readers will be shocked, if not offended, by what they read. However, that incident forms the very core of Harbor, and without it, the book would not be nearly so strong or its message so true. As one who was evacuated from Algiers just as everything there was falling apart, I strongly commend Lorraine Adams for telling Algeria’s story in such frank and believable terms despite the fact that I had dreams of that particular killing for two nights running. Let no one doubt that, in Harbor, Adams has captured the utter brutality of what Algeria suffered at the hands of its own.

Rated at: 4.5

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