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A love story set in Paris after terror attacks, 'when fear threatens to cancel out empathy'

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Candles burn as a tribute to victims near the site of the attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November, 2015.

Candles burn as a tribute to victims near the site of the attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November 2015.

Credit:

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

The main character in "Paris Metro," New Yorker writer Wendell Steavenson's debut novel, is a once-driven journalist who's no longer chasing headlines. 

That's because, for Catherine "Kit" Kittredge, the book's flawed heroine, reporting the news has become all too personal.

A beloved friend is shot and killed in the terror attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Although she's raising the young son of her Iraqi ex-husband, she has little patience for hearing the perspective of her Muslim sources. 

New Yorker writer Wendell Steavenson's debut novel.

New Yorker writer Wendell Steavenson's debut novel. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Wendell Steavenson

"I was tired of listening to their indignation. I didn't note the tremor and reedy tone of their voices as I once would have done," says the fictional Kittredge. "I didn't hear their fear; my own had canceled out empathy."

That's a far cry from the Kittredge we meet at the beginning of the novel. In Baghdad in 2003, in the aftermath of the American invasion, Kittredge's journalism is earnest, but not naïve. 

"She's hoping to describe 'the other,' and describe the experience of Iraqis in a way that's human and real and can connect them as people to her readers in an American newspaper," Steavenson says. 

That shift in attitude and perspective is at the heart of "Paris Metro." The main character's fraying nerves and faltering trust mirror global frustrations. 

"She's angry," Steavenson says. "She looks for somebody to blame. And her question is, 'Why should I be tolerant of people who are not tolerant of me?'"

It's a question being asked by many of those who formerly resided in "safe spots" in wealthy countries, where the violence and turbulence of the war on terror has finally intruded. Psyches shift, and it's that dislocation Steavenson has captured in her novel. 

"This kind of violence erupts and it's sudden and shocking and out of nowhere," Steavenson says. "It seems to target innocent people running a marathon, or sitting outside having a drink with friends on a Friday night. It really feels like now you're under attack for just the way you're living your life and going around about your business." 
 
But the violence in "Paris Metro" isn't one-sided. The novel's Iraqi characters, the young Ahmed and his diplomat father, are also traumatized by war. 

"I wanted to describe the confusion and the welter in the aftermath of some of these debates of 'us versus them' and 'East and West,'" the author says. The novel "seems quite exotic and quite violent because a lot of it is set in the Mideast against all the kinds of roiling wars and conflagrations. But in another sense it's familiar because these are conversations and debates that we're all having all the time, every time there's another [terror] attack."

Steavenson's characters lash out and grieve. They question the value of multiculturalism and tolerance. 

Then, they come out the other side. 

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