Book Review: In The City By The Sea

Political genre books are of color grey, there’s no black or white in them. But if you mix it up with the imagination of an 11-year-old, it becomes colorful and a peripatetic view. In The City By The Sea by Kamila Shamsie is one such book that revolves around Pakistani politics but under huge influence of an 11-year-old’s imagination. Can this mixture become a good read? Read more to find out.

The story of In The City By The Sea revolves around eleven years old Hasan, who is living in a country which is under the dictatorial military rule. The reader gets an idea of the city in question through Hassan’s life, whose maternal uncle is Salman Haq, a famous politician kept under house arrest. Son of an artist mother who owns a gallery and a father who is obsessed with etymology, Hassan’s life is depicted in a very colorful way in the book.

One early summer morning, while lazing happily on the roof, Hasan watches a young boy flying a yellow kite fall to his death. And soon after, Hasan’s idyllic and sheltered family life is shattered when his beloved Uncle Salman is thrown behind bars, awaiting a military trial for treason against the dictator. Hasan wants to rescue his uncle and is willing to go any length for that yet he also understands his incapacity to actually put any of his plans into action. The dilemmas and frustrations of sudden changes in his life lead to a tragic climax of In The City By The Sea.

I have read Kamila Shamsie’s books before, but this was the first time I was reading a book more related to character sketches. Before this, I have only read books with a plot, and In The City by The Sea is a book that has no plot. It’s like reading a character sketch of Hasan and a few members of his family, leading to a tragic end that could have been modified into something better.

The weird thing about In The City By The Sea is that Kamila is trying to connect two very sperate events that are happening in Hasan’s life so that it can turn into something meaningful. Hasan witnessing a neighboring kid’s death during a kite flying session comes as prologue of the book. And the rest of the book revolves around Hasan’s politician uncle being put under house arrest and then behind bars for treason. The problem is that while reading, both the events jump back and forth, which may leave a reader confused and frustrated at times. I for one wanted to give up on the book in between. But as soon as I turned the page, something meaningful would come up that would make me stick to it.

Also, Hasan’s feelings regarding neighboring boy’s death are hardly mentioned anywhere in the book, which made me think that was it really necessary to put the event in the book? Maybe Kamila wanted to show how bravely Hasan can suppress his feeling of being a witness to such tragic event?

Another thing which made me restless while reading the book was Hasan’s age group that has been defined in the story. Initially, an impression is given that Hasan is an imaginative boy, which many 11-year-old kids are. But then, he also has the talent to shut off his imaginary world and speak to adults in their language and poise. The contrast between his childlike imagination and mature conversations makes it hard to place Hasan down into his age group.

The only thing I admired in the story of In The City By The Sea were the unique characters of the Widow, bodyguards, and Zehra, who Hasan admires deeply. But sadly, even his jealousy when Zehra starts getting closer to Hasan’s cousin didn’t create any dramatic ripples in the story, which was very sad for someone like me who has deeply enjoyed Kamila Shamsie’s work.

Honestly, In The City By The Sea has left me confused. I enjoyed the book through a magical and deep meaning perspective, but I was annoyed as well when there was no plot and unfinished things in the story. If I look at it overall, this character sketch was magical, but it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.

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