Books·First Look

Read an excerpt from Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah

Gurdeep Pandher will champion Hotline on Canada Reads 2023. The debates take place March 27-30.

Gurdeep Pandher will champion Hotline on Canada Reads 2023

A composite photo of a book cover, featuring the word HOTLINE repeated in loud colours and the book's author, a man whit short hair and glasses looking straight at the camera.
Hotline is a novel by Dimitri Nasrallah. (Esplanade Books, Bruno Destombes)

Dimitri Nasrallah's novel Hotline is about Muna Heddad, a widow and mother who has left behind a civil war in Lebanon and is living in Montreal in the 1980s. The only work she can find is as a hotline operator at a weight-loss centre where she fields calls from people responding to ads in magazines or on TV. These strangers have so much to say about their challenges, from marriages gone bad to personal inadequacies. Although her life in Canada is filled with invisible barriers, Muna is privy to her clients' deepest secrets.

Hotline will be championed by bhangra dancer Gurdeep Pandher on Canada Reads 2023. 

The Canada Reads debates will take place on March 27-30. This year, we are looking for one book to shift your perspective. 

They will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

You can read an excerpt from Hotline below.

At five minutes to two, I check my face in the mirrored walls of the building's lobby, straighten my blazer, touch up my lipstick, and then board the elevator to the sixth floor. I've been through this process many times now. I'm always hopeful that this time will turn out differently. Inshallah! I'm already finding things to like about this building: the lobby is bright and well kept; there's a security desk to keep out all the abu reihas from doing drugs in the public washrooms; even the elevator is a good size. I know myself. I grow attached to little touches like this too fast, and I begin to imagine myself anywhere and everywhere in an effort to will the world to bend my way for once. I'm a dreamer. My mother always said so. 

The elevator doors open at the sixth floor, where a promising white lobby and relatively clean carpeting greet me. Someone has thought to empty the large ashtray garbage can by the elevator so it's not the first smell to backhand you when the doors slide open. Along the wall to the right is one of those modern-looking glass doors, and stencilled across it in neon-red letters is the name NUTRI-FORT.

I begin to imagine myself anywhere and everywhere in an effort to will the world to bend my way for once. I'm a dreamer. My mother always said so.

I step inside and announce myself to the bored receptionist. "Muna Heddad," I say. "Here for the information session. We spoke earlier."

She rolls her eyes, checks her list, and then points to a room down the hall. "Follow the signs for Information Session and wait with the others. Help yourself to the free coffee."

I hope she doesn't notice my eyebrows perk up at the mention of free coffee. I find that impressive. At the end of the hall, I step into a conference room with windows facing out over the north end of the city. There's a long, wide table with a screen on one end and a dozen other people seated around it, waiting for the session to start. I drift toward the coffee station and mechanically fill a paper cup, then find a seat along the windowed side of the room. From up here, you can see the McGill University campus, and the mansions along Docteur-Penfield and des Pins, and then Mount Royal. As I wait for the meeting to begin, I try to find my home: there it is, the tall apartment building just opposite the campus gates along University Street, the only place that would rent a furnished apartment to a single mother, an immigrant with no references.

A tall, sharply dressed blonde walks into the room and claims the end of the table with slide projector and the screen. 

"Bon après-midi à tout le monde," she says, "and welcome to Nutri-Fort's information session on an exciting new career opportunity, for the right person. Tell me, how many of you would say that you're happy with your lives?"

A few people around the table let out a nervous chuckle. One man begins to raise his hand but then realizes the question may be more rhetorical than anything else. 

The blonde smiles as she scans the room, aware that she's thrown some people off their expectations. "My name is Lise Carbonneau. I'm the general manager of Nutri-Fort's downtown Montreal branch. We have six branches across the province now, 34 across the country, and there are plans to expand. All this wasn't here even two years ago. 1984, that's when this company first launched in Québec, and now it's poised to grow quickly."

The ad for this job in the back of the La Presse Jobs section did not give any sense of what kind of work this company did. All it said was "Consultants Needed. Base Pay + Commission. Full-time hours Mon. to Fri. Must have strong interpersonal skills. Interview Guaranteed," so I thought to myself, why not, what do I have to lose? I've been searching for work for almost three months now. It's already November, and I've applied to every posting for a French teacher in La Presse, Le Devoir, the Gazette, with no luck at all. I'm running out of savings. As I listen to this woman talk, yaneh, maybe I'm a little desperate. 

LISTEN | Dimitri Nasrallah reacts to being on the Canada Reads longlist:

Daybreak host Sean Henry speaks with Dimitri Nasrallah, who has made it on Canada Reads' longlist with his book 'Hotline'.

"Laissez-moi vous racontez une histoire, entre amis," Lise says. "Two years ago, I wasn't happy with my life. I was working as a floor manager down the street at The Bay, in charge of makeup girls. It's glamorous. Everyone knows that makeup section as one of the legends of this city's cosmetic world. But I was unsatisfied, unfulfilled by the work. The hardest part of my job was catching old women shoplifting and lecturing them while we waited for the police to arrive. I wanted a bigger challenge. I needed to believe in a vision of the future. I wanted a larger purpose to connect me to humanity's greater desire to self-actualize. Who here knows that word? Self-actualize. What does it mean?"

Lise cocks her hands on her hips and waits for an answer. I'm captivated by how easily she controls the room. I remember being nervous as a teacher in front of a roomful of kids for the first time, but I can see that this woman has thought everything through ahead of time, including what she wants us to think. I envy her already. Seizing the opportunity to make an impression before the others, I gently raise my hand.

"You." She flutters her hand in my direction.

"I think it means... to become a better version of yourself?"

"That's it," Lise replies, smiling directly at me. Ya rabi, her gaze practically pulls aside my makeup like the thin-threaded veil it is and looks directly into my naked soul. "To become a better version of myself." I'm using you like a prop in my performance, her eyes say to me. We now share a secret. "That's exactly what I needed in my life, and that's what Nutri-Fort provided me with its patented weight-loss formula."

At this point a few of the men in the room scoff.

Even though the woman in the picture is smiling, I think she looks sad. I can see it in her eyes, yaneh, which never lie.

"You're right to think like that," Lise adds quickly, not letting the reaction pass unnoticed. "Nothing truly exceptional ever comes from staying inside your comfort zone. Who here is uncomfortable talking about their weight? How many of you have ever attempted a diet in secret, with nothing more than a how-to book or a magazine clipping to guide you? At Nutri-Fort, we believe you shouldn't have to go through that journey alone. It doesn't work. Left to your own devices, there are too many easy exits. If you want to lose weight and keep it off, you need a plan. You need to connect with people who care, who can offer you the right tools. That's the service we offer."

One of the more overweight men at the table gets up to leave, avoiding eye contact with the others as he makes his way out the door. Once the door closes behind him, Lise presses the clicker on the table and a slide appears on the screen. It is a picture of a woman who looks like her but much heavier. Even though the woman in the picture is smiling, I think she looks sad. I can see it in her eyes, yaneh, which never lie. I wonder if this is what Lise has just seen in my eyes.

Excerpt from Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah ©2022. Published in Canada by Esplanade Books, an imprint of Vehicule Press. All rights reserved.

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