Laila Lalami’s debut novel is as relevant today as it was in 2005, when it was first published. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is cleverly divided into a prologue and two parts: Before and After. In the prologue, we meet a group of people who are crossing the Mediterranean to get from Morocco to Spain. Only 14 kilometers separate the two countries; that’s 8.69 miles. Yet the distance between them couldn’t be greater.
“Fourteen kilometers. Murad has pondered that number hundred of times in the last year, trying to decide whether the risk was worth it. Some days he told himself that the distance was nothing, a brief inconvenience, that the crossing would take as little as thirty minutes if the weather was good. He spent hours thinking about what he would do once he was on the other side, imagining the job, the car, the house. Other days he could think only about the coast guards, the ice-cold water, the money he’d have to borrow, and he wondered how fourteen kilometers could separate not just two countries but two universes.”
Murad decides to make the crossing—forcing his mother to sell some of her gold bracelets to pay for his ride. The inflatable boat that awaits him is meant to hold 8 people, but the smuggler has forced 30 people onto it. Among this group are Faten, Aziz, and Halima and her three children. When the boat is 250 meters away from the Spanish coast, the motor stops working. The captain forces his passengers into the water, so that he can return to Morocco undetected. Even for those passengers who can swim, the cold current of the sea means a struggle.
A few hours later, Murad is sitting in a detention center, wondering if the fellow passengers from the boat he doesn’t see have drowned or successfully escaped the Guardia Civil.
At this point, Part 1 begins, and in turn we get to know Murad, Faten, Aziz, and Halima. They are very different from each other, but there is nothing unusual about them. The one thing they have in common is that they are looking to change their lives. The decision to leave their family and friends, their lives and customs has not been easily made. In fact, for some, the decision has been forced onto them by others, be it by unemployment, poverty, or revenge. Each character’s story is revealed to the reader with the knowledge that the boat did not reach the Spanish shore.
Part 2 then tells us what happened to Murad, Faten, Aziz, and Halima after the crossing. Some are right back where they started, but against all odds, some have been able to reach Europe and evade the police. The price each character has paid for the crossing is much larger than the sum that was paid to the smugglers. Was it worth it? It is up to each character, and each reader, to decide for him- or herself.