In Part 2, Kit and Ahmed move to Beirut, she converts to Islam so they can marry and Ahmed becomes more and more secretive. As Kit discovers the truth about him, his manipulative manner has a ring of authenticity, particularly when it emerges that his first wife was still alive when he and Kit married, and he has a son he has never told her about. After his first wife dies in Baghdad, he asks Kit to help raise the boy. “If you are the woman I love,” he tells her, “you will forgive me.” We are never sure whether Ahmed is simply a liar and adulterer or a man whose political leanings are taking him — and, by extension, Kit — down a very dangerous path.
The political mysteries in Steavenson’s novel could be gripping, but the form-versus-content battle rages throughout. Given the circumstances, it’s easy to accept, for example, that we can never fully understand what Ahmed is up to or why. But our emotional engagement is diminished when potentially dramatic events lead nowhere. In Part 1, Kit negotiates a dangerous journey out of Baghdad to investigate attacks on American soldiers in a town called Samarra. At one point, she and her photographer, Zorro, are locked in a room by the fighter they’ve been interviewing. Have they been abducted? Is an attack in progress? The possibilities are terrifying. But there’s no time for much tension to develop: Within just a few lines, they’re released unharmed. Further on, there is a visit to a remote Syrian monastery and a taut, evocative scene in which mysterious, threatening men come in search of Ahmed. Instead of shooting or kidnapping him, however, it turns out that they, like all the main characters, want to have an intense discussion about the Middle East and its problems.
So many scenes involve the characters talking about politics or art that I wondered if Steavenson, who now lives in Paris, reads a lot of French fiction, where it’s considered perfectly acceptable to halt the action for page after page so the characters can drink, eat and philosophize. It’s a device that’s likely to make your average English-language reader impatient.
In Part 3, the novel moves to Paris. Kit and Ahmed separate, and when he returns to Baghdad she takes sole custody of her stepson, Little Ahmed, becoming the blond stepmother of an Iraqi Muslim in a country increasingly suspicious of young men who fit that description. She befriends a woman called Rousse, who works at Charlie Hebdo and is among the victims of the killings there in January 2015 — although in real life the only woman murdered at the magazine’s office was the columnist Elsa Cayat. The insertion of one of the fictional characters in “Paris Metro” into a very real massacre is a tricky balancing act that Steavenson pulls off with sensitivity, but it raises yet again the question of why she has chosen to relate these events in the form of a novel.
In these middle sections, the stop-start nature of the narrative becomes particularly frustrating. Steavenson has such an abundance of material that it’s never clear what story she’s telling. Is this the tale of a cross-cultural marriage and adoption gone wrong or a political thriller? Is it about the loss of a friend in a terrorist attack or a search for cultural identity? In many ways, “Paris Metro” seems to be about the psychological cost of being a perpetual bystander.
And yet, after its somewhat saggy middle, the novel comes full circle to conclude with a riveting account of the November 2015 attacks from the point of view of an increasingly unraveled Kit. Her description of hiding in the bushes across from the Bataclan concert hall is utterly persuasive in its hallucinatory quality.
As Kit is forced to question not only Western society’s responses to extremism but her own, Steavenson’s observations are acute. When Zorro slaps Kit down in a debate, she reflects: “I felt the queasiness of humiliation. But I did not admit this. Instead I mustered affront.” It’s insights like this that make “Paris Metro” ultimately rewarding, even if the overall impression is one of a talented writer still transitioning from one métier to another.