If Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet is any indication of the quality of books I’ll be reading in 2010, then I’m in for a wonderful year. The novel explores the complicated relationship between the Western world and the Middle East along lines of class, race, culture, and religion by following the interconnected lives of four characters living in Kuwait during the period between the Gulf wars. Needless to say, the issues Hobbet touches upon throughout the novel are big–human rights, war, and faith, to name just a few–but she keeps the issues manageable and real for the reader by examining them on a human scale. Each of her four main characters offers a unique perspective on their shared world. That this world also happens to be our world makes Small Kingdoms all the more compelling, and all the more significant.
By setting the novel in Kuwait–a borderland, if ever there was one–Hobbet provides her narrative with the perfect venue for intercultural exchange. Here, underpaid servants from Pakistan, India, and the Philippines labor silently and without complaint beneath the watchful eyes of their Kuwaiti employers. At the same time, the Americans who visit the nation on business or for humanitarian reasons eye the Kuwaitis with equal parts fascination and suspicion. Given this mix of cultures and their attendant quirks, everyone in the novel (including the Kuwaitis) is a stranger in a strange land, and by allowing her characters to grope almost blindly through the mysterious terrain of this land, Hobbet allows her readers to do the same thing. That is, she gives us a chance to learn, to explore, to grow with her characters. She gives us the world of the Middle East and all of its attendant complications through eyes not yet prejudiced by what author George Saunders describes as the “braindead megaphone” that is the modern media.
Perhaps the most accessible character to American readers will be Kit Ferguson, a mother of two who finds herself in Kuwait when her husband takes a job there. Initially stymied by what she perceives as an entirely foreign culture, Kit reluctantly reaches out to those around her–to servants, to Kuwaiti neighbors, to the wives of other American businessmen–and, in so doing, forges a strong sense of her own place in the larger world.
“It’s something I have to work against. You know?” Kit muses about two-thirds of the way through the novel; “Staying small when the world is so big… I get all walled in at home with the kids. The world shrinks down around me–here or back in the states, and I lose my perspective.” In this passage, Kit reveals the ultimate struggle of the novel, for the cost of staying small and walled in turns out to be greater than any of the major characters can imagine, as a young servant girl is literally being held prisoner in the home right next door to Kit’s villa. For Kit and her neighbor Mufeeda to have any influence on the world around them, they must look beyond the walls of their own small lives and work together to ensure the young servant’s safety. They must, in essence, become aware of the world around them in order to live in it more fully.
As with Mehrdad Balali’s Houri, Small Kingdoms is an important novel that sheds light not just on life in the Middle East but also on what it means to be human, to be engaged in the world at large. It takes big issues and examines them on a human scale. That Hobbet pulls this trick off while also giving us a gripping, multi-layered narrative only underscores her gifts as a writer. Both moving and intelligent, Small Kingdoms is nothing short of amazing.