Review: Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah

My Quick Take: A story of migration, this was an enjoyable read that transported me to a different province, a different decade, and a very different life experience than mine.

“...even though the world is built on transactions of uncaring and gestures of exclusion, there is still kindness that hides in its folds and between its layers, just waiting to be revealed.”
In Hotline (VĂ©hicule Press), a Canada Reads 2023 finalist by Dimitri Nasrallah, main character Muna Haddad immigrates to Montreal with her young son Omar in the eighties, in the wake of war in Lebanon. She takes a job in phone sales for a boxed food diet company and works the hotline while trying to build a future in a new country.

In some ways Hotline was a small, quiet story. However, the themes and tragedy it contains are enormous. This is why I think this book worked so well for me: it took difficult ideas, sadness and pain, somehow mixed it with hope and optimism, then distilled it into a truly wonderful main character who has such a compassionate voice that it made the scope of her loss and struggle very meaningful. It spoke quietly but with outsized impact.

People who work the phone lines at the Nutri-Fort diet company have to choose another name to go by when speaking with clients. Muna becomes Mona at work. It is a Westernised name, but it was interesting to me how Muna came to embrace Mona as a new part of herself: confident, proud of her accomplishments, and looking towards her future. But Muna is always there; she washes Mona off with her make-up after a long day at work. Muna clings to the past, conjures her husband from the shower steam every night and deals with her grief. I saw this as a way for her to compartmentalise those parts of her life in order to psychologically survive. This partitioning of herself evolves throughout the book.

Muna struggles with how to reconcile her life in Canada–with its inherent racism, prejudice and relative poverty–with her longings for what she’s left behind. It’s as if she’s squaring her shoulders to face each day. As she tries to pay the rent and put food on the table, she notes, “I’m better now, more pragmatic about unfairness, more resigned to letting my ambitions go, kept afloat by an air bubble of numbness in the part of my chest where love was torn out of me.” And later, trying to reconcile her longing for the past, “I am barely a skeleton of what I once wanted. Only through starving myself of these urges can I begin to see the ghosts of my life as friends, as confidants. Be stoic, I say to myself. Want nothing. Exist only in the service of others. Breathe new life into memories. Reverse-engineer absence.”

This is balanced by Muna’s irrepressible hope for the future for her and her son. And she’s generous with her kindness to her new society. Observing the summer’s absence of students near her apartment, she notes, “...most of them will have left the city. Yaneh, they’re lucky. Many of them will never know what it's like to lose everything and start again. They may learn about it in classes and develop opinions on what should be done to make the world a better place, and for many of them that’s all they’ll ever need to think about. Good for them, I think.” One of the endearing features of this book is the lovely community of people that do show kindness, in large and small ways. In turn, Muna shows kindness to others. That is the small, wonderfully connected human scale of this story that balances out the outsized awfulness and casual prejudice.

In the Acknowledgements, Nasrallah notes that this story contains, “something of my mother’s story when we first landed in Montreal in the eighties. A French teacher by training, she also couldn't find work in education as a newly-arrived immigrant and resorted to working at a weight-loss centre, selling boxed food to make ends meet. From today’s vantage point this episode in her life speaks to me in ways that were not evident in childhood.” Perhaps a fictional exploration of his mother’s situation and his own history, then. I wasn’t sure what to make of Muna/Mona’s choice in crafting her identity as she moved forward at the end of the story. What does embracing a new culture and country mean? What does one have to–or choose to–give up? I’m still thinking about it, and that’s a good thing. Given Nasrallah's specific inspiration for the novel, I suspect much thought went into it, and it will certainly spark some good discussion.

Indeed, Hotline struck me as a very specific telling. This is Muna Heddad’s story and she’s going to tell the story that makes sense for her, in her own voice. And her voice is wonderful. This is well-written and there’s a lot to digest in this book. But it’s also just a great, interesting story where I could root for Muna, torn up by her loss and longing for the past and feeling her trauma, but also sharing in her triumphs and cheering her successes.