A novel where the “days are all much the same, bringing nothing new” is a difficult thing to pull off. And Fahd al-Atiq’s Life on Hold, trans. Jonathan Wright, couldn’t be characterized as a page-turner. But the book does manage to craft a compelling narrative about the contradictions of contemporary Riyadh even as the protagonist remains stranded in nowhere-land:
The opening of the novel has an amorphous, squashy quality: It races through the protagonist’s childhood, university years, and acquisition of a governent job without much concrete detail. Several times, we hear that the truth is elusive and the days “very much the same.”
But the book settles into a different rhythm when an adult Khaled and his father leave “new” Riyadh and go back to their old neighborhood.
The new Riyadh is something completely different from the city Khaled knew as a child: “…Riyadh had changed into something else, something like the sterile concrete house that they had recently moved into and that they called a villa.” The new city was one “that muffled sounds, like a pressure cooker about to explode.”
Or as Khaled’s friend Walid said, in this new Riyadh, “Real neighborhoods are dead, real society is dead, real people are dead[.]”
Khaled’s family made a journey much like that of many middle-class Riyadhis: from a close-knit community in mud huts to a new, concrete home where the windows are sealed shut and each person is sealed into his or her particular alienation. In this new world, Khaled notes three categories of Riyadhis: “ a puritanical camp and  a camp that was rushing into a new consumer lifestyle at full tilt and  in the middle stood a third camp of people who were lost and adrift[.]”
Khaled’s brother, who goes off to fight in Afghanistan, is in the first camp, and several of his friends are in the second. But Khaled, and more particularly his sister, are stuck in the third, not knowing which way to turn.
As the novel progresses, Khaled and his father make several trips between the old and new Riyadhs, as his father wants to repair and rent out the old mud home.
The clearest parts of the narrative are when Khaled recalls his childhood, at the start of the 1970s, in a neighborhood “that seemed to have emerged overnight from a pile of dust.” It was a community of mud-brick houses, built without a city plan, but with a sense of belonging. The flashbacks have Khaled’s coming-of-age story — understanding girls, sex — while in the foreground, we realize that he still hasn’t come of age.
It is the same for Riyadh, about which the protagonist thinks that it had “become a hive of activity without producing anything real and without the most basic elements of life. Everyone was constantly running but they didnt know where they were going.”
The end of the novel grows squashy again, without a clear critique of Khaled’s situation; “the elusive truth was still elusie,” both for the protagonist and for the novel. Still, despite that, it paints an interesting portrait of a man and city that have lost hold of who they are.