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review 2017-08-27 11:21
A novel not for everybody that perhaps everybody should read
Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is another one of the books longlisted for the Man-Booker Prize (now I only have one left of the ones I discovered sitting on my list. I might even finish reading it before the short-list is announced, I believe on the 13th of September). In this case, like in a few of the previous ones, although the author, Mohsin Hamid, is fairly well-known, this is the first of his books I read. Some of the reviews compare it to his previous books, especially to The Reluctant Fundamentalist (I don’t know about the book, but I love the title, for sure), but I can’t comment on that. I can tell you that having read this book, I am curious to read more of his works.

This is another fairly peculiar book. Let me tell you beforehand that I really enjoyed it. Like many of the other books selected, the author seems to go out of his way to ignore most of the rules that those of us who read articles and books on writing are so familiar with. He tells a fair bit more than he shows (although there are some bits of showing that make up for it), he uses run-on sentences and paragraphs that sometimes go on and on (if you read it as an e-book, full pages). The punctuation of the said paragraphs is ‘alternative’ at best (quite a few reviewers have taken issue with the use of commas). And the genre is not well-defined.

The novel seemingly starts as a love story between two young characters, Nadia and Saeed, who live in an undetermined Middle-Eastern country. He is shyer, more serious, and has certain religious beliefs (although he is not obsessed or particularly orthodox). She wears a long, black robe, possibly as a protection (although her explanation of it varies throughout the story) but never prays. He comes from a happy and learned family; hers was well-off but not particularly supportive. They meet at a time when the political situation of their country is getting complicated, they almost lose each other and eventually, due to a tragedy, end up together, but never formally so. At some point, life becomes so precarious and dangerous that they decide they must leave.

The story, told in the third-person, that most of the time shares the point of view of one of the two protagonists (and briefly that of Saeed’s father), at times becomes omniscient, interspersing short interludes, which sometimes are full stories and sometimes merely vignettes, of characters that appear extraneous to the story. (And they are, although perhaps not).

The story up to that point, apart from these strange interludes, appears fairly realistic, if somewhat general (no specifics are shared about the country, and the narration is mostly circumscribed to the everyday experiences of the characters). Then, the characters start to hear rumours about some ‘doors’ that allow those who cross them to arrive at a different country. There is no explanation for this. It simply is. Is this fantasy, science-fiction (but as I said, there is no scientific explanation or otherwise, although the setting appears to be an alternative future, but very similar to our present. Extremely similar), or perhaps, in my opinion, a touch of magic realism?

People start migrating en masse, using the doors, most to remove themselves from dangerous situations, and despite attempts from the richest nations to control it, more and more doors are appearing and more and more people are going through them, and that changes everything. Many of the western nations end up full of people from other places, squatting in empty houses (like the protagonists do in London, Chelsea and Kensington to be precise), setting up camps, and the political situation worsens, with confrontations between the natives and the new arrivals, before a sort of equilibrium is reached. The two main characters move several times, and their relationship develops and changes too. (I am not sure I could share true spoilers, but I’d leave it to you to decide if you want to read it or not, rather than tell you the whole story).  

The book deals with a subject that is very relevant, although it has been criticised for using the allegory of the doors to avoid discussing and describing one of the most harrowing (sometimes lethal) aspects of the experience of illegal immigrants, the passage. Nonetheless, this novel sets up a fascinating hypothetical situation, where there are no true barriers to the movement of people between countries and where all frontiers have effectively disappeared. What would actually happen if people were not waiting outside to come in, waiting for governments to decide what to do with them, but suddenly found a back door, and were here, there, and everywhere? What if they refused to leave? What would happen then?

I enjoyed some of the interspersed stories, some magical, some of discovering amazing possibilities, some nostalgic. I also loved the language and some of the more generalised reflections about life, people, and identity (like the different groups of people who claimed to being ‘native’ in the USA, for example). We observe the characters from a certain distance at times, but we are also allowed to peek into their inner thoughts and experiences at other times. Although we might not have much in common with either of them, we can easily relate to them and put ourselves in their shoes. We don’t get to know much about some of the other characters, but there is enough for the readers to imagine the rest and fill in the gaps.

The book meanders and at times seems to stay still, just observing the new normality, as if it was trying to tell us that life, even in the most extreme circumstances, is made of the small everyday things. A few quotations from the book:

Nadia had taken one look at Saeed’s father and felt him like a father, for he was so gentle, and evoked in her a protective caring, as if for one’s own child, or for a puppy, or for a beautiful memory one knows has already commenced to fade.

Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.

…and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.

…the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.

 

This is a book that questions notions of identity, beliefs, nationhood, family, community, race… It is dark at times, full of light at others, sad sometimes, and sometimes funny, and it is hopeful and perhaps even utopic (not something very common these days). I am not sure everybody would define the ending as happy (definitely is not the HEA romance novels have us accustomed to) but perhaps we need to challenge our imagination a bit more than traditional storytelling allows.

 This is another novel that is not for everybody but perhaps everybody should read. If you are prepared to cross the door of possibility you might be amazed by what you find on the other side.

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review 2017-05-30 03:08
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

This is a strong work of literary fiction that didn’t strike any special chord with me. I’d tried unsuccessfully to read it several times in the past, but made another attempt this year and can report that it gathers steam as it goes, though it took me a couple hundred pages to start really enjoying it.

Midnight’s Children is part family saga, part magic realism, and all historical fiction, tracing the history of India in the 20th century (from British rule through the 1970s) as told through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, born at the moment of India’s independence and endowed with special gifts. It is a sweeping, ambitious sort of novel, and Rushdie of course seems to have had great fun with the language. Saleem can be a frustrating narrator, telling a story full of digressions and with grandiose ideas of his own importance (I tended to write this off as a character who believes he’s dying struggling to give meaning to his life and suffering, but that’s certainly not the only way to read it). But in the end I was swept up in the story and was glad to have read it, and one encounters a lot of Indian history along the way.

Overall, this is worth reading even if you struggle with the beginning. But if you’re looking for a giant work of Indian literary historical fiction, I’d still recommend A Suitable Boy first.

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review 2016-09-16 08:59
The Lives and the Times- Amit Verma

   First, please don’t be put off by some rather dubious reviews. Authors have no say over who reviews their work, whether they wish to flatter with stars or trash with their absence. I took the trouble to make contact and ask the author about what had happened. He had a book signing event on his own academic institutions campus. We can’t control our popularity. I admire Verma’s honesty, especially in this world where the honest authors have to compete against an overwhelming pile of deceit in the book marketing business. Some or all of these over egging reviews may not be on other popular reviewing sites, in which case this opening paragraph is of only obscure relevance. (I read on Amazon.com)
   This book is written with a very Indian voice, with a common rhythm of English spoken on the sub-continent. That style is exactly right for the book, however, a good edit to internationalise the sentence structure, and improve some word choices, is needed. There are also grammatical errors that distract from the flow.
   I would have preferred a title along the lines of ‘June’s Dream’. The prologue to the book seems to be misplaced. In my opinion, it adds nothing to the later folds of the story.
   I actually loved reading this book, feeling drawn to look at a class-based mind-set, a detachment from the less fortunate masses that pervades on the Indian sub-continent. I felt the harshness, the magic, the dust, the rural backwardness and the strange mix of modern and ancient that I associate with India. The bizarre dream of June allows for the development of so many elements of life, for some penetration satire, and for the surrealism that invades some many of our dreams. I sensed the deep frustrations that pervades those attempting to turn India into the truly modern country it should already be, but for the failures to unlock its potential. The story, the dream, breaths the rhythms of a billion people from a host of interlocking, connected but independently acting cultures, that generally put their own needs before those of the greater society. The biggest democracy in the world needs to be what on paper it should have rapidly become after 1947, a date which is already a long-lifetime in the past. Verma is an accomplished writer with a great story, but one rather let down by poor execution. I don’t know who edited the book, but I do know that they’ve done the author less than justice. Verma’s satirical humour is deserving of much better presentation.

AMAZON LINK

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review 2016-08-20 17:20
The Thorn and the Blossom by Theodora Goss
The Thorn and the Blossom - Theodora Goss,Scott McKowen

Like most other readers, I was drawn to this little book by the format: an accordion book with the same story from two different perspectives printed on either side of the pages, so that you can start from either direction and get a different version. How cool is that? Answer: very cool.

 

The story is a well-written little romance that can be read in a sitting (each story has 36 pages of text). While the structure is traditional, the author’s writing makes it feel fresh, and I was drawn into Evelyn and Brendan’s love story. But I was happier with it after finishing the first story than after reading both, because Goss fails to take advantage of the dual-perspective format other than to add more texture to the life of the current viewpoint character. Brendan’s and Evelyn’s perspectives are very similar, and there are no big surprises waiting in either story that we don’t eventually find out in the other. When I read the same story from multiple perspectives I want revelations that make me look back at the prior account with new eyes. Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith is the gold standard for that sort of story, this one not so much. This book would make a good gift idea for the romantic book nerd in your life. But while I enjoyed the first story quite a bit, the addition of a second, only slightly altered version of the same thing seemed unnecessary.

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review 2016-06-06 01:48
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours - Helen Oyeyemi

This is a lovely book of short stories: they are often surreal and occasionally baffling, but nonetheless beautiful. Oyeyemi’s free-flowing imagination results in a wholly original collection of stories: one never knows what will happen next, or what byways the story might take us down before the end. Locks and keys are a recurring motif, but not the only commonality – six of the nine stories are set in contemporary England, and characters from earlier stories regularly reappear. This isn’t your grandmother’s England, though; most of the characters are people of color, and same-sex relationships abound (though the collection is not “about” race or sexuality). Anyway, the stories:

 

“Books and Roses”: This is a beautiful story, a fairy tale of sorts set in early-20th-century Spain. Its ending left me baffled at first (though it made more sense once I realized that Safiye was in Barcelona, the same city where Montse is employed).

 

“‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea”: After a false start, this turns out to be a story about the fallout from a pop star’s abuse of a prostitute, from the point-of-view of a teenage fan’s stepfather. I appreciated the examination of public reaction to violence against women, but it’s a little heavy-handed. (Or maybe I’m just not used to encountering YouTube comments in literature!)

 

“Is Your Blood As Red As This?”: An odd but entertaining tale set in a strange school of puppetry (with sentient puppets!). I enjoyed the characters, though the ending was confusing. It is easier to draw conclusions once we encounter some of the characters again in later stories. The POV switch from a human to a puppet halfway through is effective.

 

“Drownings”: A fairy tale about the fall of a despot; this is an excellent and very imaginative story.

 

“Presence”: A couple participates in a strange psychological experiment. This story didn’t do much for me: we know it’s an experiment all along, and I felt a more interesting tale could have been told with these characters.

 

“A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society”: Probably the most grounded of the stories, about a university women’s organization founded to protest the behavior of a men’s club. A fun story with a sweet ending.

 

“Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose”: An intriguing retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” set in the contemporary Czech Republic. This may be the only story with a straight white protagonist, but Oyeyemi creates a believable character in Dornicka, an older widow from the countryside.

 

“Freddy Barrandov Checks . . . In?”: A young man gets involved with his family’s creepy hotel. While it’s a well-written story, I was frustrated by the protagonist’s ready caving to requests that he do wrong. The ending is oddly abrupt.

 

“If a Book Is Locked. . . .”: A strong final entry, in which a mysterious new co-worker shakes up her office. Ordinarily I consider the second person something literary authors need to flush from their systems, but Oyeyemi’s writing is strong enough that this actually works.

 

Overall, I definitely enjoyed this collection. The writing is accomplished and the stories unique; though their subjects vary, they fit well together. I would read more from this author.

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