CATHERINE “KIT” KITTREDGE, the narrator of Paris Metro, is a risk-defying, border-crossing Anglo-American war correspondent who has grown tired of “reaming sentences into paragraphs of clichés and conventions.” She longs “to stretch reportage into something more artistic,” to unbind herself from the headline-hunting Now and leap into something both more raw and more timeless. Kit has “followed the War on Terror bandwagon from Afghanistan to Baghdad, lived in Beirut, detours to Syria, reporting trips to Cairo, Gaza, Dubai.” She is a self-described “grim reaper of the details. […] mistress of the aftermath.” An earnest searcher after fact, she becomes seduced by fiction.
The same could be said of Kit’s creator, the Paris-based Anglo-American journalist Wendell Steavenson, here making her first foray into fiction after writing books based on her reporting in Iraq (The Weight of a Mustard Seed: The Intimate Story of an Iraqi General and His Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny) and Egypt (Circling the Square: Stories from the Egyptian Revolution).
As Steavenson’s novel opens, Kit is reporting from Baghdad, reaping the details of the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. “God Curse Saddam and the Americans” has become a popular graffito. The longer she is there, the less she understands the descent into lawlessness, dysfunction, and unyielding sectarian warfare. At the same time, and with equal flair, she chronicles her inner war of attrition against the sense of being ground down “into contempt, black humor, cynicism.”
She is guided first by her godfathers — Alexandre, an effete diplomat, and Jean, a correspondent for Le Figaro — and then by a clever, urbane Iraqi working as a translator for the Americans. Ahmed, son of an Iraqi executed by Saddam Hussein, is fluent in four languages. He is conversant in the novels of the French-Jewish writer Romain Gary and, like Gary, he is a “chameleon charmer,” a silver-tongued man of dissimulation. Even as she falls in love with Ahmed, Kit notices his “faux honesty, a popcorn puff with just enough kernel of truth to be plausible.” She learns too late that Ahmed compartmentalizes his life, that he keeps her “in a separate folder, cross-referenced with other personnel files only occasionally and with caution.”
Where the godfathers’ guidance is paternal, Ahmed’s takes a more merciless cast. He scolds her,
You think you know this country, Kit, because you are fucking an Iraqi. […] You believe in your universal humanity — but humanity is a luxury; you need prosperity to have humanity.
After two years together in Baghdad, Kit and Ahmed move to Beirut in search of prosperity. Not long after they marry, Ahmed coldly informs her that he was married to an Iraqi woman when he married Kit, that he has a four-year-old son, also named Ahmed, and that this first wife has just been killed in the violence. The boy comes to live with them, and Kit, who’s infertile, legally adopts little Ahmed. As he weaves his way into Kit’s heart, the boy personifies an incursion into her habits of dispassionate observation. In creating a home for him, she can no longer afford to hold herself aloof from the story she has reported on with such studied objectivity.
In the shambles of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Kit and Ahmed are no longer intoxicated by Mideast turmoil and decide to move with little Ahmed far from the fray — this time to Paris. Big Ahmed finds work of a vague kind for the United Nations and frequently revisits Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, “drawn back, inexorably, inescapably, into the region’s disaster, as if he could somehow solve it.” Ahmed has “so many SIM cards,” Kit laments, “that the numbers were all crossed out and cross-hatched in my diary.”
After years of reporting on bloodshed in the Middle East, Kit expects Paris to be a respite, but it’s abruptly cut short January 7, 2015, when brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, born in Paris to Algerian immigrant parents, massacre 12 people in the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Kit is chilled to the marrow by word that her friend, a painter and photographer, was among the murdered.
If in the past Kit had visited violence, had willingly sought its aftermath, now violence has visited her. The experience leaves her enraged and brittle and given to pontification about the low-heat melting pot of France:
The French Republic, under its banner of laïcité, says no, there aren’t Muslims and Catholics and Calvinists, there are only Frenchmen. The French state denies the difference, and it’s a difference that fundamentalist Muslims themselves can’t bear to be denied.
Then, a bit later, after a visit to Greece to witness the refugee crisis firsthand, Kit declares:
Nobody dares mention the fact that Muslims who were born and grew up in Europe are now violently rejecting its values, while at the same time their fellow Muslims are appealing to those values to let them in.
Ultimately, Kit acknowledges the larger tragedy of the attack:
I was in the middle, trying to communicate one to the other, going back and forth from Paris to the Middle East all these years — reporting, listening, writing. But after Charlie, no. They made me choose a side.
Little Ahmed, now a teenager entangled in the demands of assimilation, has become an immigrant fully tethered neither to Iraq nor to France. He scoffs at Kit’s doctrinaire side-choosing and labels her a “ranting right-wing nutcase.”
When Islamist terror strikes Paris again several months later, as Kit knew it would, she spends the night hidden in a flower bed opposite the Bataclan theater. Half buried in the dirt, she’s fixated by the aftermath of the jihadists’ massacre of 89 concertgoers. As suspicions arise that one or both of her Ahmeds may be involved, Kit’s illusion of distance from the tumult and carnage finally collapses into a reality of unbearable proximity.
More than once in Steavenson’s novel, Kit’s eyes are drawn to a stenciled graffito of a rifle with a croissant for a trigger that fires madeleines rather than bullets. The image captures an essential ambition of Paris Metro: the subtle transfer of well-honed techniques of observation — a gift for the descriptive detail — into the realm of imagination. Only imagination, the narrator hints, can call forth what is best in us, even as men, with their full complement of weapons and resentments, do their worst.
In her years of sending dispatches to The New Yorker, the Guardian, and Granta, Steavenson became well versed in the duties and doctrines of detachment. But the voice of elegant gravity that carries this book’s accounts of external events and interior lives is that of an impassioned storyteller more than that of a dispassionate journalist. In this accomplished and deftly plotted debut novel, Steavenson makes clear that her training in journalism has served, too, as an apprenticeship in fiction and its embellishments. Here, clinging to facts that are arresting enough in themselves, she distills the all-too-real convulsions of politicized religion that have brought terror to Paris and elsewhere. Yet to get at more lasting truths, she gives herself license to lie, to admit subjectivity, and the consequent freedoms of fiction seem as revelatory to Steavenson as they will to her readers.
Benjamin Balint, a writer and translator living in Jerusalem, has taught humanities in the Bard College program at Al-Quds University. He is the author of Running Commentary (PublicAffairs, 2010) and Kafka’s Last Trial (W. W. Norton), which is forthcoming in the fall.