Top positive review
Must Read Book of 2020
Reviewed in the United States on September 27, 2020
Critics have been puzzling over what this book actually is. Memoir, fiction, autofiction, autobiography, metafiction, non-fiction? A mix of all of the above? However you choose to label it, Homeland Elegies is a terrific story. Akhtar mixes love for the idea of America with rage at its imperfections and sadness at how far we’ve slipped from whatever noble ideals we once held.
Three major threads run through Homeland Elegies. First there’s the family dynamic. Akhtar’s mother and father emigrated to Wisconsin from Pakistan. His mother never adapts to America, forever mourning the loss of her homeland. His father is an unforgettable character, a talented surgeon with large appetites who throws himself enthusiastically into the American pool without ever quite learning how to swim in it. Second, we get a broader look at the Muslim experience in America from the author’s encounters with high-achieving immigrants and their children. They’ve mastered the economic system while staying skeptical about the culture that props it up. Finally, there’s Akhtar’s own life story – upper-middle class kid in Wisconsin, struggling writer in New York, globetrotting public intellectual rubbing shoulders with marquee names in politics, arts and tech.
The author tells us he admires Phillip Roth, and in many ways he’s the Muslim equivalent of Roth. He has that same intensity, verbal dazzle and willingness to tip over the table and smash the china at Sunday family dinner. Like Roth, he gets excoriated for telling tales and revealing secrets, most of all for confessing his doubts to outsiders and unbelievers. Akhtar has the courage to understand and acknowledge his own desires, be they noble or sordid, and the intelligence to put them into a cultural-historical context.
Homeland Elegies is brilliant in its analysis of how narcissistic self-interest and unrestrained capitalism have poisoned American culture and led to the decline of hope and upward mobility in the working and middle class. Whether or not it’s a novel, this story is urgent and compelling and a must read for anyone trying to sort through their feelings about our increasingly unhinged country.