A Review of Seducing Mr Maclean by Loubna Haikal

educing Mr Maclean is full of lush descriptions about Lebanese culture, dancing, music, and in particular, food (you’ll be craving hummous, baclava, and halva for weeks after reading it). It is an enjoyable and funny read which touches on an important and rarely treated subject matter by an author whose knowledge of Lebanese culture is extensive.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

A Review of Seducing Mr Maclean by Loubna Haikal

Seducing Mr Maclean
by Loubna Haikal
Picador, March 2002
ppr $A21.00, ISBN 0-330-36304-2

“Every little confrontation with the new caused a big change inside us”

According to the 1996 Census, there were 177,000 Arabic speakers in Australia, and in Sydney, Arabic is the largest single language spoken after English. The Lebanese are Australia’s biggest Arab-speaking group (http://www.sbs.com.au/radio/arabic/community.html). While these figures continue to grow, there aren’t many Australian novels which address the migrant experience, and fewer still that take the perspective of migrants from Lebanon. Haikal’s first novel, Seducing Mr Maclean, is therefore important, not only for addressing this cultural vacuum by pulling together the richer aspects of Lebanese culture and putting them into the context of the difficulties of being a young migrant, but for turning the migrant experience into art.

Seducing Mr Maclean has been promoted as satire, and there are humorous moments certainly, but the book offers more satires like “Kingswood Country” and “Wogs Out of Work”, satires to which is has been compared. The main character, who remains nameless throughout the story, is a young adult, and her struggles between her sense of self, her larger than life family, and her desire to succeed at university and fit into Australian life, form the basis of the novel’s tension. The novel is narrated in first person, and the reader is put into the role of a confident. We can’t see inside of this 20-23 year old girl-woman, but she tells us everything, from her insecurities, her mother’s obsessive depilation of all obvious body hair, her self created “personas”, her interpretations of other’s responses to her ethnicity, her twin brothers’ dodgy business deals, and her growing self-confidence. Most of the humour comes from the characterisation. There is the narrator’s fortune telling mother, who worries about the influence of the Evil Eye, and the impact of envy against “the genetic superiority of the Lebanese as a race.” The narrator is under pressure to hurry up and finish her medical studies so she can cure her parents of constipation.

Then there is Mr Maclean, the lusty head of the medical school. He is obviously a gentleman because of his “generous desk inlaid with green leather”, his medical books and the number of letters after his name. Although ultimately presented as a sympathetic figure, Maclean is actually unpleasant, especially in the beginning. He not only asks the most patronising kinds of questions about life in “the Lebanon”, including things like “‘And what do you eat in The Lebanon? Sheeps’ eyes?…Mm?”, “you do the dance of the seven veils, do you?” while searching for the ruby “What the women from The Lebanon wear in their belly button”, but also makes sexual advances, touches the narrator in various places, kisses her, and “bounces her on his knees”. The narrator is ingenuous about these advances, relaying them in a matter of fact way, and indicating always that the real issue for her was whether she was behaving according to local protocol: “I wished then that I knew what was considered normal man-girl behaviour by Australian standards”. Maclean improves considerably as the novel progresses, and his interest in Lebanese culture increases, and as he spends more time with the narrator’s family, but nevertheless, there is something discordant about his transformation from lecherous bigot to seriously absorbed “Lebanesophile”, and the narrator’s combination of eagerness to seduce, and lack of physical interest in Maclean doesn’t help. At one point the narrator looks at him and sees him as a tahini smeared baby:

He dipped the falafel in the taratour, and the taratour dribbled out of his mouth thick and creamy like colostrum and he ended up with a tahini ring around his lips and I couldn’t help thinking of him as a baby, wondering whether the breast milk he drank had had tahini, taratour, lentils, aniseed, all the things that brought Lebanese breast milk on.

This later proves prophetic, and Maclean’s own revelation seems a bit late to justify his transformation. Nor do we know whether his desire for the narrator has changed into an understanding of his heritage, and a sense of paternal rather than lustful love towards the family.

There are other interesting characters in the novel. One of these is Robby, the 6 foot tall blond love interest. Robby is interested in learning about the narrator’s culture, and seems genuinely engaged, but his family is awful, asking the narrator questions like “whether the men in The Lebanon had many wives, lived in tents and why were we killing the Jews instead of going back to the desert where they belonged”. Aside from the overtly vacuous life they lead, they are openly hostile to the narrator: “if he is so keen to marry a foreign woman he could always get himself a mail-order bride”, and their bigotry is indicative of that which the narrator receives at the hands of her fellow-students, and initially, by Mr Maclean. Of course it is the flip side of her own parent’s racism towards the Turkish and Australians, and their subsequent banishment of the oldest pregnant daughter Samia, or their own excessive hijinks, from the father’s affairs to her brothers’ dealing in drugs and their sharing of a single girlfriend, the restaurant business, the card games, and the general chaos. Nevertheless, the narrator’s family is endearing in their exuberance, and the pride they take in their daughter and heritage.

The narrative voice is a simple, and at times a shallow one, making the book almost seems like it had a teen audience in mind. The themes are a bit more intense though, and concealed beneath the farcical humour, and the narrator’s ingenuous impressions. From the difficulties that new migrants have to experience, to the tension between superficiality and depth, this is a very fast, easy to read book with adult themes. I’m not sure that I would actually call it literary fiction, although it is classed that way – the book is fairly straightforward in its narrative and is not particularly challenging in its structure, assumptions, or language, but it is certainly engaging enough. Seducing Mr Maclean is full of lush descriptions about Lebanese culture, dancing, music, and in particular, food (you’ll be craving hummous, baclava, and halva for weeks after reading it). It is an enjoyable and funny read which touches on an important and rarely treated subject matter by an author whose knowledge of Lebanese culture is extensive. Although this is Haikal’s first novel, she has published and produced several plays, a ballet, a short story, and a short film.

For more information on Seducing Mr Maclean, visit: http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/pandetail.asp?ISBN=0330363042