Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers is the story of a Syrian man and his family and their experiences during Hurricane Katrina.
I can’t really make too much of a commentary on the author to start out the review like I normally do, because this is quite different from Eggers’ other novels. Certainly his skill with portraying the emotional highs and lows people can go through is clearly in evidence, but where most of his stories are personal ones tinted by a fictional veneer, this is a true story with a straightforward narrative.
In any case, Zeitoun is a striking story about a stubborn man and his love for his family. Refusing to accept the foreboding signs of the incoming hurricane, Zeitoun stays in the city while his family heads north to safer territory. At first I felt that Eggers went a big thick with the foreshadowing of the storm, but in retrospect I don’t think it’s possible to escape the sense of doom surrounding the city just before Katrina hits the coast. After an initial period of adjustment and confusion, as the enormity of the damage sinks in, Zeitoun and others that he runs into react with admirable courage, setting out in boats to help people in trouble and animals trapped by the flood. Once the military and police begin to take charge things quickly spiral out of control, as Zeitoun and his friends are put through hellish treatment by a system that does not care about proof, procedure or the treatment of its inmates. The total sense of injustice and powerlessness becomes numbing, an constant assault on your emotions, as you see the casual brutality of the prison guards and the nervous breakdown that Zeitoun’s wife suffers when her husband suddenly disappears in a flooded city. It’s a story you want to be fiction, because accepting that this actually happened in America is too depressing.
Eggers does an incredible job of telling the story in a simple, constrained style while capturing the emotional toll the storm takes. He shows remarkable restraint in not turning the story into a polemic against FEMA and the Bush Administration and their shocking mismanagement in the face of a crisis; he lets the events speak for themselves. My one complaint about the book is that outside of Zeitoun and his wife, the family feels poorly fleshed out. The daughters are given some development, but not enough to get a real sense of who they were, and the son is barely mentioned at all. With the importance Eggers and Zeitoun both seem to place on family, it seems strange that they are used largely as a plot device. Beyond this though, Zeitoun is a heartbreaking, but well written tale of family and a system breaking down.