Hamish Hamilton, £18.99 (352pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Zeitoun, By Dave Eggers

A story of hope from a deluge of despair

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born in Jebleh, on Syria's Mediterranean coast. Decades later and thousand of miles away, he awakes from dreaming of a fishing expedition out of his childhood home: "Beside him he could hear his wife Kathy breathing, her exhalations not unlike the shushing of water against the hull of a wooden boat." As so often in Dave Eggers's latest novel, the docu-drama Zeitoun, a caught image opens a window on an ocean of memory and a state of mind.

Zeitoun now lives in New Orleans, where he runs a painting and building company and owns several buildings. He's a dedicated businessman, father, husband, and Muslim. His painter's van is emblazoned with a rainbow, which Zeitoun soon discovers has gay associations for Americans. But he doesn't change it. "Anyone who had a problem with rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam."

Kathy, practical and strong-willed, was brought up a Baptist in Baton Rouge. Attracted by "the doubt sown into the faith" and "the sense of dignity embodied by the Muslim women she knew," she converted to Islam after her failed first marriage. Some years later she married the much older Zeitoun.

Eggers describes their domestic bustle and warmth, and their irritations. For Zeitoun, these include his children's wastefulness and obsession with pop music, and his alienation in a family of women. Kathy is bothered by Zeitoun's stubbornness and her own family's Islamophobic nagging.

As Hurricane Katrina barrels towards New Orleans, Kathy drives her daughters to her family in Baton Rouge, then escapes to friends in Arizona. Zeitoun stays at home, first to look after his property and tenants, then because he feels he's needed. His silent canoe is more effective than the armed motor boats whose noise drowns out calls for help. He rescues elderly residents from their attics and feeds abandoned puppies. The authorities, on the other hand, shoot puppies – prompting Zeitoun to wonder if something "had changed irrevocably. That this was considered a sane or even human option signalled that all reason had left this place."

Eggers uses Zeitoun's eyes to report on America's reasonless post-Katrina world, offering a counterpoint to media portraits of "third world" chaos (there were many poor black victims). On the community level, there is kindness, common sense and solidarity. Neighbours and strangers of all ages and ethnicities pull together. As far as Zeitoun can see, unreason comes from the state.

Zeitoun is on the porch of his own building when he is apprehended by armed men. He is locked up for 23 hours a day and given (religiously forbidden) pork to eat. He meets people arrested for carrying their own property, or for complaining. The state's "guilty until proven innocent" attitude is particularly dangerous for the Arab-Muslim Zeitoun. "You're al-Qa'ida," he is told, presumably because the Syrian friend arrested with him is carrying a bag of cash (Middle Easterners rarely trust banks). Zeitoun is transferred to Elayn Hunt Correctional Centre and into a Guantánamo-style orange jumpsuit. For a month he is refused a phone call. Kathy assumes her husband is dead.

Bush-era America's response to Katrina mirrors the failures of the Iraq occupation. There is the same reliance on big but useless technology; sensationalist media coverage and tooled-up security are both overdone, while rescue and reconstruction work are hardly done at all.

Mercenaries, and the Israeli organisation Instinctive Shooting International, prowl the flooded streets. The first prison Zeitoun experiences was built, almost overnight, at the city bus station – a great organised effort – while stranded citizens died of thirst. Following Abdulrahman's release, a trailer home is provided to the Zeitouns (whose home is terribly damaged), but the trailer's key never turns up.

Back to Jebleh. After two days clinging to a barrel on a stormy sea, Zeitoun's father ordered his children to spend their lives on land. But Zeitoun is drawn to water, working as a fisherman and sailor, exploring the continents. His older brother becomes a world-champion ocean swimmer. Throughout the novel water represents freedom and borderless space, contrasting with Zeitoun's American confinement.

Reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's documentaries, this is a true story told with the skills of a master of fiction. It's an immensely readable account of ordinary people struggling through extraordinary circumstances, as well as a commentary on the strains put on a genuinely multi-cultural society by corporatised welfare and militarised nationalism. A political text or straight journalism would not have brought out the human dimension, but here are fantasies, fears, verbal tics, textured relationships and subtle timbres of mood. This could only be achieved by the holistic novel form.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of 'The Road from Damascus' (Penguin)

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map