Tag Archives: Mohsin Hamid

Exit West: This futuristic fairy tale will make you sad. And then you’ll forget it. Because feelings are for suckers.

Mohsin Hamid had an idea: a future where people could travel by walking through a door. And then he tried to write a novel – Exit West – around this idea with varying degrees of success.

Most successful is the grafting to this idea the ideas of home, belonging, citizenship and immigration. Our two protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, open the novel in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. Desperate to escape the country they pay to exit through a ‘door’ (which shouldn’t be in quotes because it is a literal door, but (of course), also a metaphorical door). Along with many of their countrymen they escape and find themselves unwelcome refugees in the lands on the other side of the door(s). Think about it. If you had the idea or prompt – “Doors that open to another place” – you could use that idea in all sorts of fanciful ways. I would most certainly have a door taking me to a pizza factory, for instance. Hamid goes the other way and takes the tired metaphor and scene of border crossing and offers a fresh take. The door allows the exploration of the desirability of destinations (which doors get guarded), of state security (how and whether and when doors are policed by the state) and agency and access (who can make it to a door, who can pay to open one).

Less successful is the romance narrative. Narrated in third person omniscient, the novel has a distinctly fairy tale tone and feel that would/could lend itself to a sweeping romance. Alas in this case I never connected with either Saeed or Naidia. Which isn’t to say I didn’t find their romance believable, or the ultimate conclusion of their relationship relatable. More I didn’t care enough about either of them to be overly concerned by their individual or collective fates. I was much more interested in the doors and the world they opened into. As I suspect Hamid was, too.

I have trouble locating where things don’t quite work – as the writing is top notch, the characters are given all sorts of opportunity to develop, the conflict is real and pressing, the settings unnervingly universal and realistic (and dystopic, I should add). I think it comes down to narrative point of view for me. I wonder if this one might really be the example of where rewriting from a different point of view makes it a much better novel. I can see it narrated from either Saaed or Nadia’s perspective and finding a much stronger sense of connection and empathy. Of course you can argue that this connection isn’t the point. That I’m meant to be focused on the conceit. But, for me, I wanted a stronger connection to character and a more complete sense of the impact of leaving on them as individuals and their relationship.

So this isn’t a settled one for me. More that the idea itself offers a solid exploration of a refugee experience, if not a terribly good romance.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

Cottage Week: 4/5

                        

I spent the last week at a cottage in Northern Ontario doing four things: sleeping, eating, swimming and reading. I suppose I should say five, as I also drank my share of wine. I relaxed. I luxuriated. I was eaten by horse flies. I felt – and was – totally privileged. I made my way through five summer reads, and four were pretty well fantastic. One was… not.

In order:

Raymond Chandler’s, The Big Sleep

It’s five books ago now, and so my memory of the novel is already fading (see why this blog had to come into being?), but I do remember enjoying The Big Sleep because I liked the detective – Marlowe – principally because of his self-reflexive uncertainty about his decisions and actions. I can’t say I was particularly fond of the representation of women in the novel, but (if my reading in the mystery category so far is to be any indication) perhaps women in mystery novels are destined to be somewhat flighty and ridiculous (or in the case of Miss Marple, utterly without sexual discrimination so as to be mistaken for a man). The mystery Marolwe must solve is particularly engrossing because it doesn’t begin as the mystery we think he’s meant to solve, and so the crime unfolds gradually, along with the clues, in an intricate and engrossing weave. Yeah, I wrote that sentence.

Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

One of the opening sequences in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate involves Calpurnia (our twelve-something protagonist) writing a letter to the editor of the Texas paper to complain that the weather report in the paper (this being 1899, weather reports arrive by newspaper) gives the temperature in the sun, and not, as she might like, in the shade. She tells the editor that the temperature in the shade would be more accurate to most of the citizen’s experience of the outdoors, and that the lower number might boost town moral. The newspaper, alert to a good suggestion, changes their reporting to give both the temperature in the sun and in the shade.

I describe this sequence in detail because I think it aptly captures the tremendous strength of Kelly’s novel in using plot events to unfold and develop character, setting and theme. Calpurnia’s character steadily “evolves” (as we might hope from the title) but not in any melodramatic Bella sense of her pensive stares or deliberate conversations about her own changes, but rather through subtle interactions and actions. The time and place of the novel is, too, richly described and felt, though not through any cumbersome description, but through the interaction between place and character.

Not to mention the book does a masterful job of concluding without “settling” everything, while still allowing the reader a sense of content and closure.

Oh! And Calpurnia is just a fantastic character.

Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared

It feels like something of a disservice to Echlin’s novel to lump it in here among five other books, because the novel is exceptional in every way. It’s epigraph reads “tell others,” and the whole novel urges readers to take seriously (for N.) their collective responsibility to read/hear the stories of others and to act whenever and wherever injustice is done. Far from heavy handed in this moral, the novel beautifully (really, really, I try not to overuse this word so that in the rare instances – like right now – that it applies it might have weight…) exposes the changes wrought by love and the sacrifices one might be willing to make. It struggles to make clear to the reader how much bigger a person can be than their physical bodies, how far their reach, how tremendous their power. I found it affecting, troubling and for those reasons, rewarding. I urge you to read this one, and not because I feel impelled to “tell others,” but because this is one of the books that shakes you. Shakes!


Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkaud

I had a slow start with The Bartimaeus Trilogy (of which The Amulet is book one), no doubt because I read it directly on the heels of The Disappeared and felt (rightly or wrongly) that it was too silly, to weightless to be read. Happily I kept reading and allowed The Amulet to be what it is: an engaging, whimsical, (but not frivolous!) exploration of magicians in a modern/fantasy world. I say, “not frivolous,” because the book makes some tentative gestures toward considering how the obligations we owe to one another shape relationships – how every relationship might better be considered in terms of debts owed, paid, and pending. But that said, it’s really something of a romp of magic, spells and incantations. I won’t compare it to other magical stories that cannot be named, but some might.

Mohsin Hamid Moth Smoke

Too bad the holiday had to end with Moth Smoke, a book that ought to be good, but falls flat. A playful use of multiple narrative voices is intended – I think – to let the mystery that structures the plot play out with attention to how narrative biases shape interpretations, but the uniformity in the “different” narrative voices made these attempts to offer unique perspectives on the same event read as a failure in a creative writing class assignment. Which is not to say the whole book was terrible – just it’s organizing principle… The apparent protagonist does experience changes – made less compelling by their attribution to drug use and not to a fundamental shift in character, and the attention to the inequities produced and underpinning class stratification was refreshing.

So there. 4/5 on the summer reads = a pretty great cottage week.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner, Young Adult Fiction