Book Review: “House of Sand and Fog”

“In my fast, all these things seemed more possible, especially in America–where–as in no other country–hard work, sacrifice, and discipline can be rewarded one hundredfold” 

PLOT SYNOPSIS: A house goes up for auction that was repossessed by the county from Kathy Nicolo, a recovering drug addict, for not “paying business taxes” (which ends up being an error). However, the home was sold at auction to Colonel Behrani, a once-right-hand-man to the Shah, now escapee to America. The plot, a harrowing tale, transpires as Kathy Nicolo attempts to regain her house, and Behrani attempts to regain his elite social position (I won’t share the ending but it is tragic).

WHY I LIKE THIS BOOK: The writing style is poetic. He takes the time to include the minute details that are haunting, that are realistic, and that are human. I would not say the pace of the book is ‘slow’ (because that insinuates boring) but I would say the pace is suspended. As Kathy Nicolo awaits Les at the fishing cabin and begins to second guess his actually leaving his wife and coming back to her, Dubus writes in all of the details of Kathy’s insecure, self-doubting, and actually rational thought process. Dubus gives us just enough details to describe the fishing cabin–the cobwebs on the floor, the missing stove, the hot, stagnant air–with just enough weight that we can feel the misery and the sadness in her. The balance of the writing between the characters thoughts, actions, backgrounds, and the setting is not overdone but instead methodically placed to demonstrate this hit-rock-bottom life.

I love how the story only truly owns the perspectives of Kathy Nicolo and Behrani. As many contemporary authors utilize, the story switches viewpoints between Kathy and Behrani (which in English class, we call Third Person Limited). There are sections where we follow Les or Nadi around, but in those snipets, we only get their actions, and the perspective leaves out what’s happening in their thoughts. Therefore, the story is truly about Kathy and Behrani, and through hearing their perspectives, I think we, as an audience, yearn and ache for both situations.

Who do we want to “win?” This is very complicated. I think the story is a break from your traditional good-guy, bad-guy story; the characters demonstrate both good and bad traits–they are both hopeful and hopeless, moral and deceitful, rigid and irrational. We empathize with the motivations for all parties involved–Kathy wants her house back, because it is a relic, given to her by her deceased father; Behrani wants to up charge and sell the house for his son’s college tuition. Les wants to protect Kathy, Nadi just wants peace, and each of these characters have very logical, very understanding, very personal ties to this house.

THE MESSAGE: So often, we think the law is black and white. If you get speed 10 miles over, you receive a $150 fine. If you steal $20 worth from the Dollar Store, you receive 9 months in jail. This story, however, shows the intersection between the law and the humans it seeks to govern, and argues that, while laws intend to be unwavering, there also exists a human element that complicates the usage of the law.

It is complicated which character is right, and which character is wrong. Just in their social standings, it is difficult which character to support. Kathy, while technically the “true American” is a recovering drug addict, whose husband left her, she has no children, and she cleans rich people’s houses to make money. Society deems her a “waste of space”, “no worthy” because she “isn’t productive or giving back in any way–just sucking resources, sucking space, and sucking air”. On the other hand, there is Behrani, who is a refugee from the Shah’s regime. He once lived an elaborate lifestyle–with maids and fancy dinners and limo drivers–and now lives on the bottom of American society. He should be a prime example of accomplishing ‘The American Dream’, which he hopes to do with his real estate, and his intentions are truly to further his family (a value that, as Americans, we root for) but he is not from our soil, is seen as “just sucking resources, sucking space, and sucking air”. In our American minds, which one “deserves” the house?

And, of course, as the story goes on, the ties between the characters complicate more. For me, Lester is a very complicated character. At first, I figured he picked up on Kathy because he thought she was a prostitute, but then, he treats her well, he is careful with her, he feeds her, provides shelter, takes her out to dinner. But then he becomes intertwined in the plot line, which inevitably, will also impact his wife, his children, his own future. Every time Kathy shows up at the house, we cringe (because she shouldn’t be there) but then Behrani shakes her, puts bruises on her arms, and maybe he is worse than she is?

It’s all very complicated, and there certainly are no right or wrong, black or white answers–it is just humans and real life, who could potentially encounter these real situations.

WHO I’D RECOMMEND IT FOR: First of all, this story is not happy. If you are looking for a good, old fashioned love story, this is not it. But, if you want a story that has beautiful prose, that is creative in it’s perspectives, and that makes you feel something, I’d totally recommend House of Sand and Fog.

(Just a side note–in my scope of the Moral Universe, I think the county should give the house back to Kathy and give Behrani the next house that goes to auction at the same price).

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