Cockroach by Rawi Hage

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Cockroach by Rawi Hage

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Dawn Powell
Reviewed by Dawn Powell
Summary: A no-holds-barred description of life as an immigrant in Canada.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241144442

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We meet the nameless narrator just after a failed suicide attempt. As he describes his life as an immigrant in Canada to the psychiatrist (whose sympathy is outweighed by her naivety) he is forced to see, we learn more about his tragic past and the potentially dangerous path he is going down.

The narrator often refers to himself as a cockroach, frequently having disturbing hallucinations that he has the physical attributes of the insect. He certainly behaves like a cockroach—creeping around, hiding in corners, and pouncing on people when they least expect it. In fact, he is so similar to a cockroach that reading about his life gives you the same skin-crawling sensation that you get when you watch a cockroach scuttle about. His penchant for breaking into people's houses not to steal but to find out more about them makes you fairly certain that this is not someone you want to meet in a brightly lit alley let alone a dark one.

But while you may not like him, you do come to understand him. He is not a selfish or immoral character (his guilt over what happened to his sister is evidence of that); he is instead a damaged individual who has been forced survive against all odds — again, you can draw parallels with a cockroach. Just as you wonder if you would take the same murderous path that the narrator in White Tiger does if you were a member of India's poor, you wonder if you too would be a cockroach if you were forced to live the underbelly life of an immigrant.

The book succeeds in making you both dislike and feel sympathy for the narrator because of Hage's detailed and sometimes poetic descriptions. Few authors could elicit feeling of deep unease in one chapter because the narrator is acting as a sexual predator towards his boss's 16-year-old daughter (I Imagined her fingers steadily rotating and her mind projecting on the wall images of boys and hairless young men) and then intense sadness in the next because you learn what really happened to his sister.

A major issue for me is that Hage is too successful in making the narrator akin to a cockroach, so much so that I struggled to read the book. I didn't want to know about such a disturbing character despite feeling sympathy for his situation. To be honest, I think this is down to my own squeamishness rather than a fault of Hage's writing. I actually admire his bravery in creating a narrator who will potentially put readers off. He could have easily made him more charismatic, which would have made him more likeable but less realistic.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis.

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