Harbor, by Lorraine Adams

Waving, and drowning, on the edge of the American dream
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The Independent Culture

This tale of desperation begins with a stowaway diving into the chill waters of Boston harbour. Aziz has escaped from the Algerian civil war, where he was both soldier and deserter, to the subterranean world of Arab refugees and expatriates in America. But this is not just his story: the point of view is always shifting, from Aziz to his stolid brother Mourad, the only legal immigrant, to the philosophical Ghazi who wanders into a terrorist plot out of existential despair, and to Heather, the daughter of a rich businessman, who shelters and loves these men.

Like the FBI agents who tap the phones of these immigrants, the reader becomes an eavesdropper to a world of strange alliances, brutal memories and broken conversations. The Algerians have left a country torn apart by a bloody war between terrorists and the military in which innocents like Aziz's fiancée have been mutilated and killed. But, like most immigrants to America, they have also come for gold in the streets. Even the most menial jobs can pay enough to send money home to their families.

Ghazi, a graduate, cooks in a Mexican restaurant and finds he hasn't forgotten his habit of stealing. Rafik is involved in fraud, theft and maybe selling explosives. Aziz washes dishes and, like an American child, sets up a street stall that sells coffee. This is an immigrant story without the warm finish, for these men will probably never enter the mainstream. The FBI agents, who don't understand the tangled situation in Algeria or the difference between appearance and reality, see all of them as potential terrorists.

Lorraine Adams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, writes with the urgency of a good journalist. She is unrelenting in her vision of Algerian refugees trying to survive in a country fearful of anyone "Arabic". She also shows an astute understanding of the complexity of civil war. Aziz, forced to join the terrorists, sees how helpless he was: "The generals torture us for being terrorists. The terrorists kill us for not being terrorists."

This is her first novel, but she skilfully manages the labyrinthine plot and large cast. The scenes with the FBI sound too much like a thriller film, but Harbor engages us because the characters are so real and their relationships endearing. Aziz finds sanctuary over and over again: with his family when he comes back from the war, with Egyptians after he emerges from Boston harbour, and finally with fellow Algerians and Heather, who comes to love him like a brother. "You heard it in Heather's voice. How they care about each other," the FBI woman observes. That is the novel's only hope.

Wendy Brandmark's 'The Angry Gods' is published by Dewi Lewis