Author: Dave Eggers
Release Date: June 15, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction, Narrative Nonfiction, Current Events/History
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Zeitoun family was living in New Orleans, Louisiana, running a painting business and managing several properties. As Hurricane Katrina approached the city, Kathy Zeitoun decided it was time to leave the city, unwilling to risk her family’s safety in the massive storm, but her husband Zeitoun refused to accompany them. As the two separated and nature unleased its fury on the city, they each faced their own trials as a consequence of the storm.
Zeitoun is an book with a complex backstory, which makes it hard to review only in the context of what’s presented in the story. I had a lot of issues with it, specifically questioning Eggers’ responsibility to the reader versus advancing his own agenda when it came to the portrayal of the relationship between Zeitoun and Kathy.
Zeitoun is a difficult book to review, for many reasons. It’s a nonfiction portrayal of one family and their trials during Hurricane Katrina, but it’s more than just about the storm. Eggers takes the reader inside Zeitoun and Kathy’s marriage, into their personal lives, into Kathy’s embrace of Islam and Zeitoun’s family back in Syria. There are many issues that this book deals with, and though Eggers is never subtle, it paints a powerful portrait of one family juxtaposed against larger issues of civil rights and liberties.
The book certainly has its frustrations. Zeitoun’s choice to stay behind, rather than to leave with his family, is not easy to swallow. Kathy and his children need him, yet he puts his priorities elsewhere. Additionally, his constant musings on his family back home, rather than focusing on the present, makes for a sometimes-tedious read. Still, Eggers’ descriptions of what Zeitoun did and saw during and after the storm are vivid and absorbing, and the narrative style is engaging and very easy to read.
Without giving away too much, the realities we live in in a post-9/11 world come front and center in Zeitoun. about halfway through the novel. Because of his heritage, Zeitoun comes under suspicion (for no reason) and endures brutal, inhuman treatment. It’s awful to read about and will shake the foundations of readers’ faith in the United States (or at least, whatever is left for the more cynical among us). Eggers has a point to make here, and as I’ve said, he’s not subtle about it, but in this case he doesn’t really need to be.
After reading Zeitoun I had a lot to think about, and though I found parts frustrating or boring, I enjoyed the read overall. This was a book club pick for me (and a great one at that, with a lot to discuss), and while I usually don’t let these discussions affect my review/opinion of a book, in this case, it did. Eggers portrays Kathy and Zeitoun as a couple very much in love, a team that depend on one another. So I was shocked to learn [spoiler for real life, but that isn’t in the book] that Zeitoun and Kathy were now divorced after he beat her in the street, almost killing her.
Kathy explains that the portrayal of their marriage in Zeitoun was an honest one for where their relationship was at that particular moment, but that there’d been issues with physical violence in the past and since the book’s publication. She didn’t come forward with it because of the pressure to live up to Eggers’ image. So, clearly, this affects how I felt about the book, but also makes me question Eggers. He holds Kathy and Zeitoun up as this amazing couple, but it’s clear that was more fiction than fact. He’s not a journalist, but this book is nonfiction. So what is his responsibility to the reader? Was it his responsibility to dig deeper and find the flaws, presenting the unadulterated truth? Or would that have affected the agenda he clearly had with writing this book, to criticize post-9/11 security with their treatment of an “innocent” man (at least, innocent of the charges they levied against him)?
I personally believe that Eggers did the reader a disservice by not trying to find the truth, rather than just accepting things with Kathy and Zeitoun at face value (I’m assuming here that he didn’t know about these issues, rather than knowing about them and choosing not to include them). A more honest portrayal would have also helped Kathy come forward sooner and protect herself and her children from Zeitoun’s violence, and maybe have gotten Zeitoun some help if he was suffering from PTSD after his experiences during Katrina.
In the end, I do still believe the book is worth reading, and am glad I did so. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have serious issues with it.
Other books by Dave Eggers: