I am not a mother, but recently I have read two books that shine a pretty special light on motherhood. You might remember my review for Chouette, and this one, although totally different, I think will also stay with me for a long time. And it has a fantastic title as well.
In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.
Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.
Until Frida has a very bad day.
The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.
Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.
A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.
Jessamine Chan’s short stories have appeared in Tin House and Epoch. A former reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Brown University. Her work has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the Anderson Center, VCCA, and Ragdale. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.
I thank NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone, Hutchinson Heinemann for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I heard a lot of comments about this novel, was intrigued by its subject, and I can honestly say this is a book that won’t leave anybody indifferent.
The author is well-known for her short stories, but this is her first novel, and as she explains in the author’s acknowledgments at the end of the book, she had been working on it for many years before it saw the light. It seems that it started as a short story, but at the recommendation of a writing mentor at a workshop, Chan felt encouraged to develop the concept. Readers who are interested in the writing process will enjoy reading the author’s note, as it gives a good sense of what inspired her, which writers influenced her, includes a bibliography for those interested in her sources, and it also gives an account of how many people play a part in the final product, from the author and her family to the institutions providing support of all kinds.
The description of the novel gives a reasonable overview of the plot, although I am not sure everybody who has read it would agree on the way the book is characterized in the last paragraph.
We have all heard stories of neglectful parents, and/or parents doing things that seem unthinkable, like kidnapping their children, harming them, or even killing them. I have often thought that in this day and age when one can hardly do anything without having “training” and holding “a certificate” (at least in most Western societies), it is amazing that one of the most difficult things to do, raising a child, requires no qualification and there is no supervision or education provided to ensure that young people of a certain age know, at least, the very basics. As if the author had read my mind, in this book, the authorities create a School for parents (yes, for the bad mothers of the title, but there is also an equivalent school for bad fathers, although with fewer students and much more lenient), and “dystopic” doesn’t quite make it justice. The action takes place in a world that sounds exactly like ours and in the present (or at least not in a particularly distant future) in the USA, and that increases its impact, because it is not that difficult to imagine something like this happening (although perhaps some of the details are a bit fanciful and stretch credibility slightly, but only slightly).
Frida, the main protagonist, does something that is definitely bad (I am not a mother, so I cannot speak with any inside knowledge, but I think it is understandable although I cannot imagine anybody would condone it), although not, by far, the worst thing we hear about in the novel, and she is not the most sympathetic of characters. And that is, perhaps, what makes it a particularly effective but tough book to read. Because it is very easy to feel sorry for a character who is tender-hearted, kind, and nice, and feel outraged for the way s/he is treated, but here, we not only meet Frida (whose story is narrated in the third person but from her limited point of view), but also some of her peers, and none of them are people most of us would want as friends in normal circumstances, especially once we learn about what landed them at the school. But Frida gets to care for them and we do as well, and we also feel their frustration, their pain, and their desperation. Those of you who are parents, imagine if everything you did when you were with your children (and even when you were not with them) was recorded: every word, every move, every gesture, every look… and all that evidence was judged in comparison to some perfect standard impossible to achieve (and most of the time, impossible to explain by the teachers and impossible to understand by the students).
Apart from motherhood (parenthood), issues such as identity, legacy, family expectations (grandparents, relatives…), cultural differences, prejudice, desire, temptation, mental illness, privacy, mono-parental households, single mothers, the difficult (almost impossible at times) balance between profession and personal life/ work and family life, and big questions like who gets to decide what is the best for a child, and how far can laws and society go to regulate certain aspects of our lives… This is a book of big ideas, and I am sure book clubs would find plenty to discuss here, although I suspect some readers will not feel comfortable reading it and might abandon it before the end.
I enjoyed the writing style, even though I am not a fan of the use of present tense (we follow Frida’s story, chronologically, for over a year, and this is narrated in the present, although there are memories and thoughts about the past or a possible future that also make an appearance), but it suited the tempo of the story, which follows the seasons and the school programme, and it progresses at a slow pace. (I am not sure “page-turner” is a good definition, at least not if it makes us think of non-stop action and a quick pace). One of the strong points of the novel is the way it describes the thoughts of the main protagonist, her doubts, her guilt, her second-guessing herself and others, and also the way it explores her feelings, her efforts to control herself, to be seen to be doing the right thing, however hard it might be (and still failing sometimes). Although the story is poignant and very hard, there are some lighter and witty (even bitchy) comments and moments that make us smile. Yes, I’m not ashamed to confess I cheered when Harriet, Frida’s daughter, bit the horrible social worker, and although I don’t think any fragment can do justice to the novel (and if you want to get a better idea of how well the book would fit your reading taste, I recommend checking a sample of it), I thought I’d share a few brief quotes:
Here, Frida is talking about Susanna, her husband’s new girlfriend:
The girl is on a mission to nice her to death. A war of attrition.
Perhaps, instead of being monitored, a bad mother should be thrown into a ravine.
Harriet is wearing a gray blouse and brown leggings, like a child of the apocalypse.
What little she knows about the lives of saints comes back to her now and she thinks, this year, she might become holy.
“A mother is a shark,” Ms. Russo says. “You’re always moving. Always learning. Always trying to better yourself.” (You’ve probably guessed that’s one of the members of staff at the school).
The ending… I am not sure I’d say I liked it, but I think it fits the novel perfectly, and I cannot imagine any other ending that would work better. Readers seem very divided by it, and some felt it ruined the novel for them, while others loved it. It is open to interpretation, but I like to imagine that it shows Frida has learned a lot about herself and about being a mother in the school, but not perhaps the kind of lessons they had hoped to teach her.
In sum, I enjoyed (although it is not the right descriptor, you know what I mean) this novel, and I am sure I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. I don’t think this is the kind of book to recommend to a young mother, or to somebody struggling with motherhood or thinking about it, but anybody interested in the subject of government control, education, parenthood, and keen on dystopic narrations should check it out. And I will be keeping an eye on the author’s career. I’d love to know what she writes next.
Thanks to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for this book, thanks to all of you for your continued support, and remember to keep on reading, smiling, and safe (as safe as we can all be these days, at least).
Check what the publishers did in London to celebrate the publication of the book:
I bring you a pretty surprising (albeit enjoyable) reading experience.
337 by M Jonathan Lee
337 follows the life of Samuel Darte whose mother vanished when he was in his teens.
It was his brother, Tom who found her wedding ring on the kitchen table along with the note. While their father pays the price of his mother s disappearance, Sam learns that his long-estranged Gramma is living out her last days in a nursing home nearby.
Keen to learn about what really happened that day and realising the importance of how little time there is, he visits her to finally get the truth. Soon it’ll be too late and the family secrets will be lost forever. Reduced to ashes. But in a story like this, nothing is as it seems.
I had never met M. Jonathan Lee before but when I was approached by his publishing company and read a bit more about the new story and its background, I had to give it a go. I thank them for providing me an ARC hardback copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.
I was intrigued because they were insistent on sending me a hardback copy, but once I had it on my hands, I knew why. This is a pretty special book, not only because of the way it is written and the story it contains, but also because of the format. At first sight, the book appears to be double-ended. The images on both sides are the same (or almost): the door of a house with several transparent glass panels and a stained glass geometrical design on top and on one side, wood flooring (flooded by light) and a side door (on that door the glass panels on the cover are glossy rather than matte like the rest of the cover) —although perhaps it is a reflection rather than a real door— and the number 337 written (inside a box in a lighter colour) at the bottom on the right hand corner (oh, and the number is also glossy). The palette of colours includes different tonalities of yellows and browns, with a touch of green in the stained window. The other side is the same, but the palette of colours goes from violet to blue, as if this was a nocturnal version of the previous cover. It seems that the name of the author is only written on the spine, but if we pay attention to the title and the typography we soon realise that the 337 of the title, upside down, reads “LEE”. Whichever end of the book you open, it seems to be the start of the book, with the information about the edition, some quotes about the author’s previous books, a poem, and then chapter one. As I am a bit contrary, I started reading by what I later discovered was the back cover (I guess), the night version of the door, and when I reached page 16 I was greeted by this message ‘Nothing is as it seems…’ and in the next page I was told to turn the book and keep reading from page 16. Several empty pages and pages with geometrical motives followed, so I turned the book, and after checking to make sure I hadn’t missed a different beginning, I kept reading. Yes, not your standard novel, and it got me thinking. However, in case you’re already intrigued and rushing to order the book, please note the double-ended upside-down opening for this book is available in books ordered in hard copy from UK booksellers only. Don’t worry, though, the rest of the book is pretty special as well.
This is a work of literary fiction, even if a quick reading of the description might induce some people to think they are going to read a standard murder mystery book. Although there is an investigation or a process of research going on, there is nothing standard about it, and the book’s description hints at that. The book delves into memories, looks at how we remember our childhood and past events, examines the stories we tell ourselves (both about ourselves and about those around us), the way we protect ourselves from events and feelings, what happens when we are confronted with reality, and also reflects upon the many alternative ways different people deal with trauma in their lives. Some refuse to let it go; some bury it; some chose to try and forget (sometimes aided by drugs and alcohol); some reinvent themselves…
This is a book with very few characters, and in some ways, it reminded me of a play with a very small cast. It also brought to my mind a very well-known (and excellent) Spanish novel by Miguel Delibes called Cinco horas con Mario (Five hours with Mario) where the recently widowed wife of Mario reflects upon her life with him while she seats next to his coffin at the wake. Here, the main character and narrator of the story, Sam (Samuel) tells the story, in the first-person and in the present tense. He is a man leading a life that appears rather meaningless. He still lives in his parents’ house; he has an online job where he just seems to clock hours for doing as little as possible; he is in the process of divorcing his wife (she initiated divorce proceedings); and he seems to live stuck in the past, still trying to understand what happened to his family following his mother’s disappearance and his father’s imprisonment for her murder. The book opens with a dream/memory from the past, a time when his family and his grandparents —on his father’s side— had gone for a picnic to the park, a family annual tradition. There are several dreams/flashbacks throughout the book, and they are so beautifully and carefully described that we get quite a clear sense of what the family life might have been like (in full technicolour detail). Of course, as the book reminds us, things are not always as they seem, and although for much of the book we only have Sam’s own point of view, events, comments, and even memories that intrude into the action make us start wondering how reliable a narrator he is as we keep reading. We also hear about his wife, Sarah, his brother, Tom, his father, his mother (the one whose disappearance is at the centre of the book), his grandfather, and especially his grandmother, who is dying in a nursing home and whom, after much hesitation, he ends up visiting. Despite his initial reluctance, he ends up spending a lot of time with his grandmother, and that makes him reconsider things. We also meet a few members of the staff at his grandmother’s nursing home. And not even there things are as they seem to be.
The writing style is fascinating. I’ve mentioned the beauty of the descriptions, and there are some fabulous similes and metaphors as well. The writing is lyrical and at times reminded me of poetry, both in written and visual form (we might get a white space where there is a meaningful silence in a conversation, or very short sentences written as if they were a prose poem), mixed with some very insightful comments and reflections. We also have access to the conversations Sam shares with others, mostly his grandmother, but also Tom and the other characters that have much to contribute to our understanding, although not perhaps in the way we think at first. The book flows well and there is something very compelling about it, although it is not a page-turner in the usual sense, because nothing much happens for those who love action, while at the same time there is a lot going on.
A few examples of the writing, so you can see for yourselves what I mean (although remember this is an ARC copy):
Random thoughts are now jumping like kernels of corn over heat. They pop and explode inside my head like fireworks in New Year’s Eve.
When you experience some kind of serious trauma at a young age, it stays with you. It’s like a ghost which follows a few feet behind every footstep — a quiet whispered sound that reminds you of your past.
It has always confused me why people who have not got the slightest clue of what somebody is experiencing still believe that it is their right to state their opinion on the subject. I’ve given this a lot of thought. I believe it comes down to guilt.
And here, Sam is ranting (mentally) about the effects of mobile phones on conversations:
We could be locked in some deep conversation, maybe about to open up about some desperate fear or seemingly unsurmountable problem, and instead a screen is thrust in front of us and we have to smile politely at a picture of a surprised-looking cat near a cucumber. It is unbelievable. The number of truly worthwhile moments that have been spoiled by the interruption of mobile phones is limitless.
The ending… I am going to keep my peace and only tell you that I loved the way it is written and I liked the ending itself, although it wasn’t a surprise for me.
This is not a book for people who are looking for a plot-driven book and an intricate story. It has elements of mystery but it is, first and foremost, a subjective reading experience. If you enjoy literary fiction and like to savour writing in the same way you might enjoy a delicate meal or a beautiful piece of music, I recommend this novel to you. It is a ‘total’ reading experience.
Thanks to the publisher and to the author for this very special novel, thanks to all of you for reading, remember to keep safe, and if you feel like it, like, share, comment, click, review, and keep smiling. We’ll get there.
“Religion, politics, and love collide in this slim but powerful novel reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, with menace and mystery lurking in every corner.” —People Magazine
“The most buzzed-about debut of the summer, as it should be…unusual and enticing … The Incendiaries arrives at precisely the right moment.” —The Washington Post
“Radiant…A dark, absorbing story of how first love can be as intoxicating and dangerous as religious fundamentalism.” —New York Times Book Review
A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university, is drawn into a cult’s acts of terrorism.
Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet in their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.
Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is drawn into a secretive cult founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past. When the group commits a violent act in the name of faith, Will finds himself struggling to confront a new version of the fanaticism he’s worked so hard to escape. Haunting and intense, The Incendiaries is a fractured love story that explores what can befall those who lose what they love most.
“Kwon is a writer of many talents, and The Incendiaries is a debut of dark, startling beauty.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Disarmingly propulsive.” —Vogue
“A singular version of the campus novel … a story about spiritual uncertainty and about the fierce and undisciplined desire of [Kwon’s] young characters to find something luminous to light their way through their lives.” —NPR’s “Fresh Air”
“If you only read one book this summer, make it this complex and searing debut novel.” —Southern Living
“[With] a fairy-tale quality reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History … [The Incendiaries is] the rare depiction of belief that doesn’t kill the thing it aspires to by trying too hard. It makes a space, and then steps away to let the mystery in.” —The New Yorker
“A juicy look at campus mores…Kwon delivers a poignant and powerful look into the millennial mindset.” —NPR Books
“One of those slim novels that contain multitudes, R.O. Kwon’s debut novel shows how unreliable we are as narrators when we’re trying to invent — and reinvent — ourselves.” —Vulture
“If you haven’t had a chance to pick up one of the buzziest novels of summer, take Emma Roberts’ — and my — word for it: you can’t miss The Incendiaries.” —Bustle
“In R.O. Kwon’s terrific new novel The Incendiaries, a cultist looks for meaning in tragedy. Kwon’s debut is a shiningly ambitious look at how human beings try to fill the holes in their lives.” —Vox
“Kwon’s lush imaginative project … [is to expose] the reactionary impulses that run through American life…[creating] an impression of the mysterious social forces and private agonies that might drive a person to extremes.” —The New Republic
“The main attraction and reward of this book is Kwon’s prose. Spiky, restless and nervously perceptive, it exhales spiritual unease.”—Wall Street Journal
“Kwon’s multi-faceted narrative portrays America’s dark, radical strain, exploring the lure of fundamentalism, our ability to be manipulated, and what can happen when we’re willing to do anything for a cause.” —Atlantic.com
“Deeply engrossing.”—PBS Books
“Remarkable…Every page blooms with sensuous language…These are characters in quiet crisis, burning, above all, to know themselves, and Kwon leads them, confidently, to an enthralling end.”—Paris Review
“A God-haunted, willful, strange book written with a kind of savage elegance. I’ve said it before, but now I’ll shout it from the rooftops: R. O. Kwon is the real deal.”
—Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies and Florida
“Every explosive requires a fuse. That’s R. O. Kwon’s novel, a straight, slow-burning fuse. To read her novel is to follow an inexorable flame coming closer and closer to the object it will detonate—the characters, the crime, the story, and, ultimately, the reader.”
—Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer and The Refugees
“The Incendiaries probes the seductive and dangerous places to which we drift when loss unmoors us. In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R. O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable.”
—Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You
“Absolutely electric, something new in the firmament. Everyone should read this book.”
—Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
“A swift, sensual novel about the unraveling of a collegiate relationship and its aftermath. Kwon writes gracefully about the spiritual insecurities of millennials.”
—Karan Mahajan, author of The Association of Small Bombs
“A classic love triangle between two tormented college students and God. The Incendiaries brings us, page by page, from quiet reckonings with shame and intimacy to a violent, grand tragedy. In a conflagration of lyrical prose, R. O. Kwon skillfully evokes the inherent extremism of young love.”
—Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens
“An impressive, assured debut about the hope for personal and political revolution and all the unexpected ways it flickers out. Kwon has vital things to say about the fraught times we live in.”
—Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation
“A profound, intricate exploration of how grief and lost faith and the vulnerable storm of youth can drive people to irrevocable extremes, told with a taut intensity that kept me up all night. R.O. Kwon is a thrilling writer, and her splendid debut is unsettled, irresistible company.”
—Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth and Find Me
About the author:
O. Kwon is the author of the novel The Incendiaries (July 2018) and is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing is published in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, and elsewhere. She has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Omi International, the Steinbeck Center, and the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony. Born in South Korea, she has lived most of her life in the United States. She can be found at http://ro-kwon.com.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Grace Vincent, on behalf of Virago, Little Brown Book Group UK, for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. Thanks also for the opportunity to take part in the blog tour for the launch of the novel, the first book published by R.O. Kwon, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
This novel describes the attempts by one of its protagonists, Will Kendall, of making sense and understanding the events that have led to his girlfriend’s, Phoebe Lin, participation in a horrific event. As often happens in novels with a narrator (or several), no matter what the story is about, the book often ends up becoming a search for understanding and meaning, not only of the events that form the plot but also of the actual narrator. Why is s/he telling that particular story? And why is s/he telling that story in that particular way? This novel is no different, although the manner the story is told can, at times, work as a smokescreen, and we don’t know exactly who is telling what, and how accurate he or she might be.
On the surface, the novel is divided into chapters, each one headed by one of three characters, John Leal (this one written in the third person and always quite brief), Phoebe (written in the first person), and Will, also written in the first person. At first, it’s possible to imagine that Phoebe’s chapters have been written by her, but later, we notice intrusions of another narrator, a narrator trying to imagine what she might have said, or to transcribe what she had said, or what she was possibly thinking or feeling at certain times. As we read this book, that is quite short notwithstanding the seriousness of the subjects it deals in, we come to realise that the whole novel is narrated by Will, who, after the fact, is trying to make sense of what happened, by collecting information and remembering things, and also by imagining what might have gone on when he was not present. He acknowledges he might be a pretty unreliable narrator, and that is true, for a variety of reasons, some of which he might be more aware than others.
The novel is about faith, about finding it, losing it, and using it as a way to atone and to find meaning, but also as a way to manipulate others. It is about love, that can be another aspect of faith, and they seem to go hand in hand in Will’s case. He discovered his Christian faith in high school, in part as a refuge from his terrible family life, and lost it when it did not live up to his expectations (God did not give him a sign when he asked for one). He moved out of Bible School and into Edwards, and there he met Phoebe, a girl fighting her own demons, a very private person who did not share her thoughts or guilt with anybody. Will falls in love with her and transfers his faith and obsession onto her. But she is also unknowable, at least to the degree he wishes her to be open and understandable for him, and she becomes involved in something that gives meaning to her life, but he cannot truly become a part of. He abandoned his faith, but he seems less likely and able to do so with his belief in her.
The novel is also about identity. The three main characters, and many others that appear in the book do not seem to fully fit in anywhere, and try different behaviours and identities for size. Will invents a wealthy family who’ve lost it all, to fit into the new college better; Phoebe hides details of her past and her wealth, and is Korean but knows hardly anything about it and John Leal… Well, it’s difficult to know, as we only get Will’s point of view of him, but he might, or might not, have totally invented a truly traumatic past to convince the members of what becomes his cult, to follow him.
The language used varies, depending on what we are reading. The dialogue reflects the different characters and voices, whilst the narrator uses sometimes very beautiful and poetic language that would fit in with the character (somebody who had been proselytizing, who was used to reading the Bible, and who tried to be the best scholar not to be found out). Also, he tends to use that language when remembering what his girlfriend had told him or imagining what John Leal might have said as if he remembered her as more beautiful, more eloquent, and more transcendent than anybody else. This is a book of characters (or of a character and his imaginings and the personas he creates for others he has known) and not a page-turner driven by plot. The story is fascinating and horrifying but we know from early on (if not the details, we have an inkling of the kind of thing that will happen) where we are going, and it’s not so much the where, but the how, that is important. The book describes well —through the different characters— student life, the nature of friendships in college, and some other serious subjects are hinted at but not explored in detail (a girl makes an accusation of rape, and she is not the only victim of such crime, there is prejudice, mental illness, drug use, abortion…).
I read some reviews that felt the description or the blurb were misleading, as it leads them to expect a thriller, and the book is anything but. I am not sure if there must have been an earlier version of the blurb, but just in case, no, this book is not a thriller. It’s a very subjective book where we come to realise we have spent most of the time inside of the head of one single character. Nonetheless, it offers fascinating insights into faith, the nature of obsession, and what can drive people to follow a cult and to become strangers to themselves and to those they love.
The ending is left open (if we accept the narrator’s point of view, although there is an option of closure if we don’t) and I was impressed by one of the longest acknowledgements I’ve ever read. It hints not only of a grateful writer attentive to detail but also of a book which has undergone a long process and many transformations before getting into our hands.
A couple of examples of the poetic language in the book:
Punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals. Palms open, she levitated both hands.
The nephilim at hand, radiant galaxies pirouetting at God’s command. Faith lifted mountains. Miracles. Healings.
Not a light or easy read, but a book for those eager to find a new voice and to explore issues of faith, love, identity. Oh, and for those who love an unreliable narrator. A first book of what promises to be a long and fascinating literary career.
Thanks so much to NetGalley, to Grace Vincent and the publisher, and to the author, for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for writing, and if you’ve found it interesting, feel free to share, comment, click, review, and keep smiling!
Today I share the review of the last of the books I had already on my Kindle that has made it into this year’s ManBooker Longlist. The shortlist should be coming out this week. I wonder if any of the ones I’ve read will make it. This one I really liked and I hoped it gets there, but there are many I didn’t read so…
LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017
‘Elegant and evocative … A powerful exploration of the clash between society, family and faith in the modern world’ Guardian ‘There is high, high music in the air at the end of Home Fire‘ New York Times
Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.
Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?
A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.
An Amazon Best Book of August 2017: You don’t need to recall much about Sophocles’ tale of Antigone to be swept up by Kamila Shamsie’s plot-driven and lyrical contemporary retelling. Shamsie, a native of Karachi who has written six previous novels, sets Home Fire among two Pakistani émigré families living in very different communities in London. Isma Pasha, the devout orphaned daughter of a jihadi fighter, has raised her younger sister and brother in the largely Asian neighborhood of Wembley. Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary (a secularized Muslim) has grown up in posh Holland Park. His family has the power to help hers, and their friendship leads inexorably to a dramatic political crisis. The classical antecedents of this story are virtually invisible behind precisely-noticed modern-day details of Twitter trends, tabloid news, and text messages. Shifting points of view allow Shamsie to explore the different relationships at stake, from family loyalties to sexual passion, and these intimate connections counterbalance her broader political point. This is a beautifully-written, angry, romantic novel that succeeds in being both timely and timeless. –Sarah Harrison Smith, Amazon Book Review
“Ingenious and love-struck … Home Fire takes flight. … Shamsie drives this gleaming machine home in a manner that, if I weren’t handling airplane metaphors, I would call smashing. … Builds to one of the most memorable final scenes I’ve read in a novel this century.” —New York Times
“[U]rgent and explosive … near perfect … a difficult book to put down.” —NPR
“[A] haunting novel, full of dazzling moments and not a few surprising turns…Home Fire blazes with the kind of annihilating devastation that transcends grief.” —Washington Post
“This wrenching, thought-provoking novel races to a shattering climax.”—People Magazine
“A Greek tragedy for the age of ISIS … spare as a fable yet intensely intimate.” —Vogue
“Her last, perfect word serves as a contemporary, against-all-odds, global prayer… Shamsie’s latest is a compelling, stupendous stand-out to be witnessed, honored, and deeply commended.”—Christian Science Monitor “Shamsie’s timely fiction probes the roots of radicalism and the pull of the family.” —O, the Oprah Magazine
“A blaze of identity, family, nationalism, and Sophocles’ Antigone.”—Vanity Fair
“All of Shamsie’s novels are deeply moving and morally complex, leading to the kind of rich reading experience most of us hope for in every novel we pick up. Her newest has all of that and more.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Intelligent, phenomenally plotted, and eminently readable.” —Bitch “Remarkable… [an] engrossing work of literature, one not only important to current political conversation, but also that holds timeless truths and a story that never grows old.”—Chicago Review of Books
“Shamsie’s prose is, as always, elegant and evocative. Home Fire pulls off a fine balancing act: it is a powerful exploration of the clash between society, family and faith in the modern world, while tipping its hat to the same dilemma in the ancient one.“ —The Guardian
“Home Fire is about love, loyalty, and sacrifice — and it makes the headlines we read every day hit home in a way that will inspire any reader to fight for what’s right.” —Bustle
“Shamsie’s incredibly moving story addresses the conflict between what we feel to be right versus what the law tells us is right, and what we will sacrifice in the name of family.” —Real Simple
“[A] powerful story of the complexities of love, family and state in wartime …timely and tragic, with an unforgettable ending.” —BBC.com
“Home Fire is Shamsie’s seventh and most accomplished novel. The emotionally compelling plot is well served by her lucid storytelling, and she digs into complex issues with confidence… As this deftly constructed page-turner moves swiftly toward its inevitable conclusion, it forces questions about what sacrifice you would make for family, for love.” —BookPage
“Moving and thought-provoking.” —The Millions, Most Anticipated
“Gut-wrenching and undeniably relevant to today’s world… In accessible, unwavering prose and without any heavy-handedness, Shamsie addresses an impressive mix of contemporary issues, from Muslim profiling to cultural assimilation and identity to the nuances of international relations. This shattering work leaves a lasting emotional impression.”—Booklist, starred
“Memorable…salient and heartbreaking, culminating in a shocking ending.”—Publisher’s Weekly
“Two-time Orange Prize nominee Shamsie (A God in Every Stone) has written an explosive novel with big questions about the nature of justice, defiance, and love.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Home Fire left me awestruck, shaken, on the edge of my chair, filled with admiration for her courage and ambition.” —Peter Carey, Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda
“Shamsie’s simple, lucid prose plays in perfect harmony with the heartbeat of modern times. Home Fire deftly reveals all the ways in which the political is as personal as the personal is political. No novel could be as timely.” —Aminatta Forna, author of The Memory of Love
“A searing novel about the choices people make for love, and for the place they call home.” —Laila Lalami, Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Moor’s Account
“A good novelist blurs the imaginary line between us and them; Kamila Shamsie is the rare writer who makes one forget there was ever such a thing as a line. Home Fire is a remarkable novel, both timely and necessary.” —Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman
About the author:
Kamila Shamsie was born in 1973 in Pakistan. She is the author of four previous novels: In the City by the Sea, Kartography (both shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), Salt and Saffron and Broken Verses. In 1999 she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature and in 2004 the Patras Bokhari Award – both awarded by the Pakistan Academy of Letters. Her latest novel, Burnt Shadows, was shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize. Kamila Shamsie lives in London.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me with an ARC of this novel that I freely chose to review.
When I read in the description of this novel that it was a contemporary version of Antigone, I was intrigued. If all Greek tragedies are powerful stories, I’ve always been inclined towards those that figure female characters at their centre, and by the moral questions they pose. The author explains, in a note at the end, that the project had started as a suggestion to write a modern adaption of the play for the stage but it had ended up as a novel. Her choices on adapting the original material make it, in my opinion, very apt to the current times, whilst at the same time preserving the eternal nature of its moral and ethical questions.
I don’t think I can improve on the description of the novel that I’ve shared above, but I thought I’d offer a few more details. The story, told in the third person, is divided into five parts, each one narrated by one of the main characters of the story. First, we have Isma Pasha, the oldest sister of a Pakistani-British family. When her mother died, she sacrificed herself for her twin sibling and left her studies to support them until they were old enough to choose their own paths. She is serious, studious, hard-working, and remembers a bit more than her siblings do what it was like when her father, a Jihadist who was never home, died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. The questions, the surveillance, the suspicions, the need to be ‘beyond reproof’… When her sister Aneeka, is about to start university, and her brother, Parvaiz, is pursuing a career in sound and media studies, she accepts an offer by one of her old professors to continue her studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. She enjoys her quiet life there and meets a young man, Eamonn, whom she recognises as the son of an important UK politician, and one that had had some dealings with her family in the past. Although from very different social classes they share some things in common (they are both from London and they have Pakistani family, although Eamonn knows very little about that side of things). Their friendship never develops into anything deeper, but it brings hope and possibility to Isma’s life.
The next part is told by Eamonn, who intrigued by a photo he’d seen of Isma’ sister, tracks her down, and despite the secrecy surrounding their relationship, falls for her.
Parvaiz’s story is that of a young man brought up among women, who is very close to his twin-sister, Aneeka, but annoyed because the women in his life make decisions without him and he has no male role-model to guide him. A chance meeting with a man who tells him he knew his father ends up in his indoctrination and eventual joining of the Caliphate.
Aneeka’s chapters talk about her grief and her determination to do what she thinks is right, no matter the price or the consequences, both to herself and to those around her. When is love too much and how far would you go for your family?
Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, has the two final chapters. He is of Pakistani origin but has abandoned much of his culture and identity (including his religion and his way of life) and advocates assimilation and harsh punishment for those who don’t. Like for Aneeka, for him, there can be no compromise. He repeatedly chooses politics and his official life over his family and that has terrible consequences.
Shamsie has created multi-faceted characters, all distinctive and different in the way they feel, they see the world, and they relate to others. I found Parvaiz’s story particularly effective and touching, particularly as his decision might be the most difficult to understand for many readers. He loves sounds and the way he describes everything he hears is fascinating. The story of his indoctrination and the way he ends up trapped in a situation with no way out is hard to read but totally understandable. They choose him because he is a young man, vulnerable, looking for a father figure, and easy to manipulate. He makes a terrible mistake, but like the rest of the characters, he is neither totally good nor bad. They all keep secrets, in some cases to avoid others getting hurt, in others to try and save somebody or something. At times questions are not asked so as not to shatter an illusion, and at others, even the characters themselves no longer know what the truth is. The structure of the novel allows us to see the characters from their own perspective but they also appear in the stories of the others, and that gives us a better understanding of who they really are, how they appear to the rest of the people, and of the lies they tell themselves and others.
The novel deals with a number of relevant subjects, like terrorism and counter-terrorist measures, religion, ethnic and religious profiling, social media, surveillance and state-control, popular opinion and its manipulation by the media, politics, identity, family, love (many different kinds of love), ethics and morality. Although many of these topics are always at the centre of scholarly and popular debates, now they are more pressing than ever.
This is a beautiful book, lyrical at times, full of warmth and love (family love, romantic love, love for knowledge and tradition…), but also of fear and hatred. It is passionate and raw. We might not agree with the actions and opinions of some (or even all) the characters, but at a certain level, we get to understand them. We have fathers (and most of the men, although not Eamonn) prepared to sacrifice their families and their feelings for what they think is a higher and mightier good (country, religion, politics…). We have women trying to maintain the family ties and do what is right beyond creed, country lines, written laws, and paperwork. And a clash of two versions of family, identity, and survival condemned to never reaching an agreement.
I highlighted many lines of the text (and although always in the third person, the language and the expressions of the characters are very different in each segment), and some are very long (another writer not concerned about run-on sentences at times, although they serve very clear purposes), but I decided to share just a few examples:
Always these other Londons in London.
He was nearing a mosque and crossed the street to avoid it, then crossed back so as not to be seen as trying to avoid a mosque. (This is Eamonn walking around London).
She was the portrait to his father’s Dorian Gray —all the anxiety you’d expect him to feel was manifest in her. (Eamonn thinking about his mother).
Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them. (Aneeka thinking about her brother and about grief).
This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming claws.
The human-rights campaign group Liberty issued a statement to say: ‘Removing the right to have rights is a new low. Washing our hands of potential terrorists is dangerously short-sighted and statelessness is a tool of despots, not of democrats.’
He looked like opportunity tasted like hope felt like love (Anika about Eamonn).
Working class or Millionaire, Muslim or Ex-Muslim, Proud-Son-of-Migrants or anti-Migrant, Moderniser or Traditionalist? Will the real Karamat Lone please stand up? (The newspapers talking about Karamat Lone, the Home Secretary).
Who would keep vigil over his dead body, who would hold his hand in his final moments? (Karamat thinking about his mother’s death and then his own).
This is a powerful book and a novel that made me see things from a different perspective. What happens to those left behind? We are used to hearing about the families of young men and women who leave them and their country of birth to join terrorist groups. We hear of their surprise at what has happened, they seem unable to react or understand how their son, daughter, sister, brother… has become somebody they no longer understand or know. But, what must life be like for them afterwards?
There are elements that might stretch the imagination but for me, they fit within the scope of the story (it is supposed to be a tragedy, after all) and the novel treads carefully between realism and dramatic effect.
A great novel that brings to life many issues that are sometimes ignored in the political and media discourses but that are fundamental if we want to reach a better understanding of the situation. A book for people who are looking for something more than a good story and a bit of entertainment, and are prepared to ask themselves some questions. Another author I had not read yet but whom I will eagerly follow from now on.
Thanks to NetGalley, to Bloomsbury, and to the author for this extraordinary novel, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!
I bring you my review of another one of the novels that have made it into the Man-Booker Longlist. Here is it.
Exit West: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 by Mohsin Hamid
Longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize
“It was as if Hamid knew what was going to happen to America and the world, and gave us a road map to our future… At once terrifying and … oddly hopeful.” –Ayelet Waldman, The New York Times Book Review
“Moving, audacious, and indelibly human.” –Entertainment Weekly, “A” rating
“A breathtaking novel…[that] arrives at an urgent time.” –NPR.org
As featured in the Skimm, on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Fresh Air, PBS Newshour, the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and more, an astonishingly visionary love story that imagines the forces that drive ordinary people from their homes into the uncertain embrace of new lands.
In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . . .
Exit West follows these remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
An Amazon Best Book of March 2017: When Nadia and Saeed fall in love in a distant unnamed city, they are just like any other young couple. But soon bullets begin to fly, fighter jets streak the sky, and curfews fall. As the spell of violence spreads, they flee their country, leaving behind their loved ones. Early in Exit West, the author Mohsin Hamid explains that geography is destiny, and in the case of his two young lovers, geography dictates that they must leave. Hamid offers up a fantastical device to deliver his refugees to places: they pass through magic doors. Rather than unmooring the story from reality, this device, as well as a few other fantastical touches, makes the book more poignant and focused, pointing our attention to the emotions of exile rather than the mechanics. Surrounded by other refugees, Nadia and Saeed try to establish their places in the world, putting up different responses to their circumstances. The result is a novel that is personal, not pedantic, an intimate human story about an experience shared by countless people of the world, one that most Americans just witness on television. —Chris Schluep , The Amazon Book Review
“Hamid exploits fiction’s capacity to elicit empathy and identification to imagine a better world. It is also a possible world. Exit West does not lead to utopia, but to a near future and the dim shapes of strangers that we can see through a distant doorway. All we have to do is step through it and meet them.” —Viet Thanh Nguyen, TheNew York Times Book Review (cover)
“In spare, crystalline prose, Hamid conveys the experience of living in a city under siege with sharp, stabbing immediacy. He shows just how swiftly ordinary life — with all its banal rituals and routines — can morph into the defensive crouch of life in a war zone. … [and] how insidiously violence alters the calculus of daily life. … By mixing the real and the surreal, and using old fairy-tale magic, Hamid has created a fictional universe that captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines.” ––Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
“Lyrical and urgent, the globalist novel evokes the dreams and disillusionments that follow Saeed and Nadia….and peels away the dross of bigotry to expose the beauty of our common humanity.” —O, the Oprah Magazine
“A beautiful and very detailed look at what it means to be an immigrant…An incredible book.” –Sarah Jessica Parker on Read it Forward
“A little like the eerily significant Margaret Atwood novel, this love story amid the rubble of violence, uncertainty, and modernity feels at once otherworldly and all too real.” —New York Magazine’s The Strategist
“This is the best writing of Hamid’s career… Readers will find themselves going back and savoring each paragraph several times before moving on. He’s that good. … Breathtaking.” —NPR.org
“Nearly every page reflects the tangible impact of life during wartime—not just the blood and gunsmoke of daily bombardments, but the quieter collateral damage that seeps in. The true magic of [Exit West] is how it manages to render it all in a narrative so moving, audacious, and indelibly human.” –Entertainment Weekly, “A rating”
“Hamid rewrites the world as a place thoroughly, gorgeously, and permanently overrun by refugees and migrants. … But, still, he depicts the world as resolutely beautiful and, at its core, unchanged. The novel feels immediately canonical, so firm and unerring is Hamid’s understanding of our time and its most pressing questions.” —NewYorker.com
“No novel is really about the cliche called ‘the human condition,’ but good novels expose and interpret the particular condition of the humans in their charge, and this is what Hamid has achieved here. If in its physical and perilous immediacy Nadia and Saeed’s condition is alien to the mass of us, Exit West makes a final, certain declaration of affinity: ‘We are all migrants through time.’” —Washington Post “Brilliant…Its intelligently deployed surreal elements are also the best examples I’ve seen lately of how the nonrealistic is sometimes the best way to depict how an experience feels, as opposed to just the facts of what it is.” –Vulture
“Skillful and panoramic from the outset… [A] meticulously crafted, ambitious story of many layers, many geopolitical realities, many lives and circumstances…Here is the world, he seems to be saying, the direction we’re hurtling in. How are we going to mitigate the damage we’ve done?” –The New York Review of Books
“Like the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but set in the real world. You’ll be hearing about it, so get into it now.” —TheSkimm
“A short, urgent missive in which each detail gleams with authorial intent….Exit West is lit with hope. Hamid has said that “part of the great political crisis we face in the world today is a failure to imagine plausible desirable futures,” and that “fiction can imagine differently.” “Exit West” does so, and beautifully. May Hamid’s hopes turn out to be as prescient as his concerns already are.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] ambitious and far-roaming tale of migration and adventure…which feels like something quite new.” –The New Republic
“Hamid graphically explores a fundamental and important ontological question: Is it possible for us to conceive of ourselves at all, except in juxtaposition to an “other”?… What is remarkable about Hamid’s narrative is that war is not, in fact, able to marginalize the “precious mundanity” of everyday life. Instead — and herein lies Hamid’s genius as a storyteller — the mundanity, the minor joys of life, like bringing flowers to a lover, smoking a joint, and looking at stars, compete with the horrors of war.” –Los Angeles Times
“In an era when powerful ruling groups — often in the minority — are gripped by a sense of religious and ethnic nativism, Mohsin offers these two, the millions they represent, and us, comfort: that plausible, desirable futures can be imagined, that new tribes may be formed, and that life will go on… If we are looking for the story of our time, one that can project a future that is both more bleak and more hopeful than that which we can yet envision, this novel is faultless.” –Boston Globe
“In gossamer-fine sentences, Exit West weaves a pulse-raising tale of menace and romance, a parable of our refugee crisis, and a poignant vignette of love won and lost… Let the word go forth: Hamid has written his most lyrical and piercing novel yet, destined to be one of this year’s landmark achievements.” –Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A remarkable accomplishment….not putting a human face on refugees so much as putting a refugee face on all of humankind….Hamid’s writing—elegant and fluid…—makes Exit West an absorbing read, but the ideas he expresses and the future he’s bold enough to imagine define it as an unmissable one.” –The Atlantic
“Terrifying, hopeful, and all too relevant.” —People Magazine
“A thoughtful, beautifully crafted work that emphasizes above all the ordinariness and humanity of people who become refugees… Its language and ideas might have a particular resonance today, but they would be worth reading at any time.” —Vox
“It was as if Hamid knew what was going to happen to America and the world, and gave us a road map to our future… This book blew the top off my head. It’s at once terrifying and, in the end, oddly hopeful.” –Ayelet Waldman, New York Times Book Review
“Brilliant….[Hamid] highlights the stark reality of the refugee experience and the universal struggle of dislocation.” –Newsday
“If there is one book everyone should read ASAP, it is Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West…Short, unsentimental, deeply intimate, and so very powerful.” —Goop
“Spare and haunting, it’s magical realism meets the all-too-real.” –W Magazine
“With great empathy, Hamid skillfully chronicles the manic condition of involuntary migration… ‘Exit West’ rattles our perception of home.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Taut but haunting.” –Vanity Fair
“Powerfully evokes the violence and anxiety of lives lived ‘under the drone-crossed sky.’” —Time Magazine
“Hamid’s timely and spare new novel confronts the inevitability of mass global immigration, the unbroken cycle of violence and the indomitable human will to connect and love.” —Huffington Post
“Hamid doesn’t avoid or sugarcoat the heartache and hurt accompanying contradiction and change, as people ‘all over the world were slipping away from where they had been.’ But he also has the courage to … see change as an opportunity.” — Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel
“A dark fable for our turbulent time, Exit West…portrays a world of transience, violence, and insecurity that rhymes with our world of porous borders and rabid tribalists.” – Dallas Morning News
“Reading Mohsin Hamid’s penetrating, prescient new novel feels like bearing witness to events that are unfolding before us in real time.” –Seattle Times “I have not been this emotionally moved by a book in years… By the end … I was in tears and had to sit still for a bit to reflect. This timeless and timely love story is one we need; right now and forever.” –Sarah Bagby, KMUW Wichita
“A great romance that is also a story of refugees; this couldn’t be more timely.” —Flavorwire
“Exit West is a compelling read that will make you think about the times we are living in right now.” –PopSugar
“A sly and intelligent book, written with Hamid’s extraordinary eye for character—their desires, hopes, grudges, and disappointments—all those ‘faulty human things’ that keep us alive and make us real. But what truly sets the book apart, both in Hamid’s oeuvre and contemporary fiction, is it’s warmth and generosity to its readers—something we need more of from books in our morally exhausting times.” –Guernica
“Timely and original.” –Business Insider
“Beautiful.” –The Rumpus
“Urgent and much needed… an antidote of sorts (one can only hope) in this moment of xenophobic fear and mistrust.” –Mother Jones
“Eerily prescient.” –Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker.com
“Brilliant… If you’re numb to the unending talk relating to migration policy, the platitudes and the protest slogans, this book provides a way to reignite much-needed empathy because, above all, Hamid reminds us that no matter hard governments try, they can never really close doors.”–Toronto Star
“A commanding yet fanciful outlook on the current climate of global immigration and international xenophobia, as told through the poignant love story of those caught in between… A beautiful rendering of the lives hidden in the folds of war.” –AV Club
“Every so often, the right author, the right story, and the right moment converge for an altogether perfect reading experience— I’m happy to tell you Mohsin Hamid is that author, Exit West is that story, and this is the moment.” –Parnassus Musing
“While we’ve permitted ourselves to go soft, we can be thankful for the writers in the rest of the world who continue to write in the tradition of our greatest literary works. No surprise, then, that Mohsin Hamid belongs in that pattern… a writer celebrating the possibility of hope. That’s what makes his latest novel so profound.” –Counterpunch
“Political without being didactic and romantic without being maudlin… Exit West is a richly imaginative work with a firm grip on what is happening to someone somewhere right this minute.” –BookPage
“[A] thought experiment that pivots on the crucial figure of this century: the migrant… Hamid’s cautious, even fastidious prose makes the sudden flashes of social breakdown all the more affecting…Evading the lure of both the utopian and the dystopian, Exit West makes some rough early sketches of the world that must come if we (or is it ‘you’?) are to avoid walling out the rest of the human race.” –Financial Times
“[Q]uietly exquisite… A masterpiece of humanity and restraint, it is an antidote to the cruelty of a present in which those who leave the places of their birth seeking a better life are routinely demonized, imprisoned or left to die… There’s a lightness to the author’s lyricism, his every sentence fit to be whispered. It’s the language of daydreams, where the deeply desired intermingles with the plainly surreal.” –The Globe and Mail
“Hamid shows how determination cannot be crushed, that people have hope in desperation, and that their circumstances alter their lives immeasurably.” –Winnipeg Free Press
“Exit West operates on another plane… Beautiful and poetic even at its most devastating.” –Book Riot
“Remarkably current and timeless … A haunting and heart-piercing novel that reminds us to be courageous and to handle our shared humanity with great care. This is required reading.” –Uli Beutter Cohen, Eye Level
“Raw, poetic, and frighteningly prescient.” —BBC.com
“Spellbinding.” —Booklist (starred)
“Timely and resonant.” —Publisher’s Weekly, Top 10 Most-Anticipated Literary Fiction of 2017
“One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory…a book to savor.” —Kirkus Reviews
Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels, MOTH SMOKE, THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, and HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA, and a book of essays, DISCONTENT AND ITS CIVILIZATIONS.
His writing has been featured on bestseller lists, adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, selected as winner or finalist of twenty awards, and translated into more than thirty languages.
He was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.
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.
Thanks very much to NetGalley, to the author and to the publisher for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!
The setting is a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.
A Horse Walks into a Bar is a shocking and breathtaking read. Betrayals between lovers, the treachery of friends, guilt demanding redress. Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dovaleh G provokes both revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he’s been summoned to this performance.
David Grossman was born in Jerusalem. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and has been translated into thirty languages around the world. He is the recipient of many prizes, including the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Buxtehuder Bulle in Germany, Rome’s Premio per la Pace e l’Azione Umitaria, the Premio Ischia— International Award for Journalism, Israel’s Emet Prize, and the Albatross Prize given by the Günter Grass Foundation.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Jonathan Cape for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This is the first book I’ve read by David Grossman. I hope it won’t be the last.
The description probably gives a fair idea of the plot. Yes, we are in Netanya, Israel, and we are spectators of the act of a stand-up comedian, Dovelah Greenstein (or Dov G.). He is 57 years old (as he repeatedly reminds us through the evening), skinny (almost emaciated), and seems to become increasingly desperate as the night goes. He tells jokes, anecdotes, makes comments about the city, the spectators, Jews (yes, the self-deprecation readers of Philip Roth, for example, will be familiar with), says some politically incorrect things, tells a number of jokes (some really funny, some odd, some quite old), and insists on telling us a story about his childhood, despite the audience’s resistance to listening to it.
The beauty (or one of them) of the novel, is the narrator. Yes, I’m back to my obsession with narrators. The story is told in the first-person by Avishai Lazar, a judge who was unceremoniously removed from his post when he started becoming a bit too vocal and opinionated in his verdicts. The two characters were friends as children, and Dov calls Avishai asking him to attend his performance. His request does not only come completely out of the blue (they hadn’t seen each other since they were in their teens), but it is also quite weird. He does not want a chat, or to catch up on old times. He wants the judge to tell him what he sees when he looks at him. He wants him to tell him what other people see, what essence they perceive when they watch him. Avishai, who is a widower and still grieving, is put-off by this and reacts quite rudely, but eventually, agrees.
Although the novel is about Dov’s performance and his story (his need to let it all hang out, to explain his abuse but also his feeling of guilt about a personal tragedy), that is at times light and funny, but mostly sad and even tragic, he is not the character who changes and grows the most during the performance (his is an act of exorcism, a way of getting rid of his demons). For me, the story, sad and depressing as it can be at times (this is not a book for everybody, and I suspect many readers will empathise with quite a few of the spectators who leave the performance before it ends), is ultimately about redemption. Many narrators have told us in the past (The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness) that in telling somebody else’s story, they are also telling their own. This is indeed the case here. The judge (at first we don’t know who is narrating the story, but we get more and more details as the performance advances) is very hostile at first and keeps wondering why he is there, and wanting to leave. But at some point, the rawness, the determination, and the sheer courage of the comedian, who keeps going no matter how difficult it gets, break through his protective shell and he starts to question his own actions and his life. If this might be Dev’s last performance, in a way it is a beginning of sorts, especially for the judge.
Readers become the ersatz club audience, and it is very difficult to stop watching something that is so extreme and desperate, but it is also difficult to keep watching (or reading) as it becomes more and more painful. It is as if we were spectators in a therapy session where somebody is baring his soul. We feel as if we are intruding on an intimate moment, but also that perhaps we are providing him with some comfort and support to help him go through the process. Although other than the two main characters we do not get to know the rest in detail, there are familiar types we might recognise, and there is also a woman who knew the comedian when he was a child and, perhaps, plays the part of the therapist (a straight faced one, but the one he needs).
The book is beautifully written and observed. Grossman shows a great understanding of psychology and also of group interactions. Although I am not an expert on stand-up comedy, the dynamics of the performance rang true to me. I cannot compare it to the original, but the translation is impressive (I find it difficult to imagine anybody could do a better job, and if the original is even better, well…).
As I said before, this is not a book for everybody. Although it is quite short, it is also slow and intense (its rhythm is that of the performance, which ebbs and flows). None of the characters (except, perhaps, the woman) are immediately sympathetic, and they are flawed, not confident enough or too confident and dismissive, over-emotional or frozen and unable to feel, and they might not seem to have much in common with the reader, at first sight. This is not a genre book (literary fiction would be the right label, if we had to try and give it one), there is no romance (or not conventional romance), no action, no heroes or heroines, and not much happens (a whole life happens, but not in the usual sense). If you are interested in characters that are real in their humanity (for better and for worse), don’t mind a challenge, and want to explore something beyond the usual, I recommend you this book.
Thanks to NetGalley, to the publisher, and to the author and translator for the book, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!
On Christmas Eve, a horrific car accident leaves Carly Perez without a mom. After a year of surgeries and counseling, Carly’s life is nearly back to normal—except for the monsters—vague, twisted images from the accident that plague her dreams. When her father insists on spending their first Christmas alone in Guatemala with a slew of relatives Carly has never met, she is far from thrilled, but she reluctantly boards the plane anyway.
That’s where she first spots the man with the scarred face. She could swear she has seen him before. But when? Where?
In Reu, the Guatemalan town where her father grew up, Carly meets Miguel, her attractive step-cousin, and thinks maybe vacation won’t be a total waste after all. Though she is drawn to him, Carly’s past holds her back—memories that refuse to be forgotten, and a secret about the accident that remains buried in her subconscious. And everywhere she turns, the man with the scarred face is there, driving that unwelcome secret to the surface.
I’m writing this review as part of a blog tour for this novel that I voluntarily agreed to participate in.
From the author’s note, it is clear that this book is a labour of love that has been many years in the coming. This is the first novel by Larisa White Reyes I had read and it is unlikely to be the last one.
The story is told in the first person by Carly Perez, a young girl (almost eighteen) who lost her mother last Christmas Even in a car accident. She was also in the car when it happened and it has taken her a long time to recover, both physically and mentally. We soon realise how precarious this recovery is. Her father, who is originally from Guatemala, insists on going there to visit his family for Christmas and Carly is less than happy. She doesn’t know them, as her father hasn’t visited in the last twenty years, she hardly speaks any Spanish, and a year after her mother’s death, the last thing she wants is to spend time in an unfamiliar (and to her mind backwards and wild) place with a bunch of strangers. Her preconceived ideas of the country and her family will be put to the test and her precarious mental equilibrium will be stretched to the very limit.
Carly is a typical adolescent in some ways, but also an extremely sensitive soul. She is moody because she has to go to Guatemala, instead of staying in California, she argues with her father, she disobeys his rules and gives him the silent treatment at times. She can be grumpy and quick to judge, both the country and her relatives, and she does not know what to think about Miguel, her step-cousin, the only one close to her age and experiences but also reluctant to engage and talk about his problems. Carly is an artist, although she’s had difficulty painting since her mother’s death, and she keeps being tormented by strange dreams, and by the recurrent appearance of a weird man, wrinkled and scarred, who keeps nagging at her subconscious. She is terrified of him but can’t recall where she saw him before. She’s convinced he has come to confront her with something, but she does not know why or what. The combination of her disturbing experiences and the new environment manages to make her remember something that had been hiding inside of her mind, masked by the grief and the medication.
The author excels at showing Carly’s point of view, and how her opinion evolves from indifference and disdain towards her relatives and the country to curiosity and eventually affection and love. One of the reasons why I decided to read the book was because I was intrigued about how a girl brought up in California would adjust to a new family and a completely different environment. The description of Guatemala, the city of Reu, the Mayan temples, Xela … paint a vivid picture of the country, its traditions (including those related to Christmas, religious and otherwise), its food and its people. We get to meet the more traditional older generation (her grandfather, caring and congenial, and her grandmother, always cooking and comforting), her aunt Dora, who also left the country and lived in New York for many years, and Miguel, the youngest one, who was born in the USA and who, although initially reluctant, ends up becoming the closest to her. They share not only age but also similar identity problems, and he’s dark and handsome too, so it’s not surprising that things develop to Carly’s surprise.
There is clean romance, there are some interesting discussions about identity, family, and what makes us who we are (and how difficult it might be to fit in when perhaps you don’t belong anywhere), and also about life, death, guilt and forgiveness. There are very emotional moments, fun and magical ones, and sad ones. Although the discovery Carly makes towards the end wasn’t a big surprise for me, the beauty is in the detail, the visual symbols (the snow, the petals of the title, the man …), the way all the pieces come together, and the final message is one of hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
In summary, this is an excellent YA book, well written, with beautiful description of places, people and emotions, exploring issues of identity, survivor’s guilt, grief and death, mixed marriages and families, the role of tradition and culture, with an engaging and sympathetic main character and a good cast of secondary ones. This is a clean book with some Christian religious content and questions although that is not the emphasis of the book. It will appeal not only to readers of YA books but to anybody who enjoys well-written first-person narratives, exploring mixed family relationships, identity, and grief, set in a wonderful location.
Laurisa White Reyes is the author of the 2016 Spark Award winning novel The Storytellers, as well as The Celestine Chronicles and The Crystal Keeper series. She lives in Southern California where she teaches English at College of the Canyons.
We’re driving down Telegraph Highway, the two of us, a wrapped gift box on my lap. It is rectangular, maybe fifteen inches tall, in red foil paper with a white bow on top. We were lucky to find the drug store still open on Christmas Eve.
Mom is pleased. She’s humming along with the radio, which is playing a lively fifties holiday song. Her thumbs tap out the tune on the steering wheel. Her car keys sway in the ignition, jingling like bells.
Outside, the sky is dark. Through the storm, the road ahead looks like a long tunnel.
Snow is falling.
It happens so fast there is no time to react. Bright lights hurtle toward us on our side of the road. Mom’s arms brace against the wheel. She thrusts her foot against the brake, but the road is slick with ice. The car swerves.
I hear a car horn blaring. I hear the crunch of metal, the pop of glass shattering. A powerful force shoves me against the car door as everything suddenly whirls in the wrong direction. I feel pain. I scream.
And then it’s over.
When I blink open my eyes, everything is white.
Snow is falling.
His was the sort of face you couldn’t forget—yet somehow, I had.
I was slumped in a chair, blocking out the airport racket with my music and a pair of ear buds, when I first spotted him slipping quarters into a vending machine. His faded gray coveralls looked completely out of place amid the crowd of holiday travelers, and I wondered if he was an airport janitor or some kind of repairman. But it was his face that sent the jolt of recognition through me. His brown skin was disfigured with long, deep scars, as though shriveled by the sun like a raisin. I knew this man, the way I’d know a song by hearing the first notes of a melody. But where had I met him? I couldn’t remember.
“Are you all right, Carly?” Dad closed his Grisham novel and patted my hand. He was a handsome man, with cocoa-colored eyes and short black hair, completely at home in khaki Dockers and a polo tee.
“I’m fine,” I said. But I didn’t feel fine. A wave of hot prickles crawled under my skin, like they did whenever I was somewhere I didn’t want to be. Dad meant well, but the truth was that I was still angry at him for guilting me into this trip.
The loudspeaker in our terminal crackled, and a woman’s nasally voice called our flight. I rolled up the magazine I hadn’t read and tucked it into my jacket pocket along with my phone. Then Dad and I got in line. Once on board, I slipped my art box (my only carry-on) into the overhead compartment and shut the cover. Dad settled in at the window, so I dropped into the aisle seat.
The other passengers continued to board. They moved slowly, a trail of human ants doped up on Dramamine, waiting for the inevitable deep sleep of late night air travel. I tried to imagine what secret lives they might be living, like mail carrier by day, stripper by night or something.
Then he got on.
My stomach lurched. Go to the back of the plane, I thought, as if summoning some latent power deep within my psyche. I read this e-book once on mental magic, about how our thoughts influence the world around us. I tried to move a paperclip just by thinking about it. It didn’t work, but that didn’t stop me from trying to will Raisin Face into sitting as far from me as possible. Instead, he took the seat directly across the aisle from me.
Dad and I sat in silence while the plane taxied down the runway. I leaned over Dad to look out the window. As the plane nosed its way into the midnight sky, I stared, mesmerized as the lights of Los Angeles spread out below me. The city from this vantage point was astoundingly beautiful, like a giant Christmas tree. My town, three hours north of Los Angeles, didn’t even have a regular traffic signal. It was snowing there when we had left that afternoon. I couldn’t believe I’d missed our first real snow day of the season.
After a few minutes in the air, the lights disappeared, blocked by cloud cover. It was so dark outside I could see my face in the glass. I squinted at the reflection staring back at me, narrow bronze features framed by long, brown hair topped by a white halo.
“You can take off your hat now,” Dad joked. “The sun went down hours ago.”
The hat, cotton canvas with a floppy brim, had been a gift from my mom.
“I like my hat,” I replied, tugging it tighter onto my head.
“Reminds me of Gilligan’s Island. You know. That old TV show?” Dad hummed the show’s theme song and took a pitiful stab at the lyrics. “A three-hour tour. A three-hour tour.” He looked pleadingly at me as though expecting me to chime in.
I settled back into my seat.
“Never mind,” he said, giving up.
It was well past midnight by the time the plane reached cruising altitude. The flight attendant came by, offering drinks. I accepted a plastic cup filled with Coke and ice.
“Peanuts?” she asked with a pasted-on smile. There was a swath of red lipstick on her teeth, and I wondered if I should do the polite thing and point it out to her. I curled back my lips like an orangutan, but her expression didn’t change. So, I pointed to my teeth. The skin between the attendant’s eyebrows creased. A possible sign of intelligence?
Dad sipped his drink. “This trip won’t be so bad,” he said.
“I already told you, I don’t want to talk about it,” I replied, and I didn’t. What I wanted was to spend the next three weeks in my own house sleeping in my own bed. Why did I agree to come on this trip? I could have chained myself to the tree in our front yard in protest, but then Dad would either have cancelled the trip and spent our entire vacation making me feel guilty about it, or I would have starved to death like a neglected Rottweiler. In either case, I really didn’t have much of a choice.
“I know you were mad,” Dad continued, “but you’re over it now, aren’t you?”
No, Dad. I am not over it.
I scratched at my front tooth. The attendant blinked twice.
“Peanuts?” she asked again.
Dad accepted a bag. Then she turned to me, expectantly. I gave her an exaggerated grin. If she wouldn’t get the hint about the lipstick, couldn’t she at least wipe that mannequin-esque smile off her face? I was not normally so critical of people, but this whole situation had set me on edge.
“No thanks,” I told the attendant. “Peanuts give me the runs.”
That did it. Her smile morphed into a slightly unpleasant expression.
Dad choked on his drink. “Carly!”
“What?” I said as the attendant moved on to the next passenger. “I’m allergic.”
“Since you dragged me onto this plane and ruined my plans for winter break, that’s when.”
Dad opened his nuts, picked one out, and rolled it around his tongue to suck off the salt. Then he crushed it between his front teeth.
“Trust me, Carly. You’ll love Guatemala,” he said. He was relentless. “It won’t be so bad, spending Christmas there.” He poured the rest of the nuts into his mouth and chewed.
Personally, I had serious doubts about spending nearly a month in a third world country where half the people lived in mud huts.
“It’s a great place,” Dad continued. “Lush jungles, ancient ruins, coconuts—”
Malaria, sauna-like heat, amoebas—
“All I ask is that you give it a chance, Carly. Give them a chance.”
Them. The so-called family I never knew. For all my seventeen years, they had been nothing more than pictures on the mantle. Dad rarely spoke of them, so why he chose our first Christmas without Mom to change the status quo was beyond me.
“Why did I have to come?” I asked, my frustration piquing. “I’m old enough to man the house while you’re away. I can take care of myself.”
“We already went over this, Carly. They want to meet you. It’s important to me that they do.”
“If they’re so important, then why haven’t you seen them in two decades?” I didn’t expect an answer. I just wanted to get Dad off my back. But instead, he shrugged his shoulders and gave me an apologetic grin.
“Let’s just say we had our differences,” he said.
The flight attendant returned, this time offering a pillow. She was still smiling. At least the red mark on her teeth was gone.
I took the pillow and arranged it behind my neck. Dad took one as well, tucking it behind his head. I should have been glad to finally have some quiet time to myself, but curiosity got the better of me. I leaned over and whispered.
“Go to sleep,” said Dad.
“What differences?” I asked again.
“Carly, it’s almost one in the morning. Even if you’re not tired, I am. Let me get some sleep. Okay?”
I looked around and realized that most of the other passengers had already dozed off.
“Do you need your pills?” Dad asked.
I shook my head. “If I take them now, I’ll be a zombie when we arrive.”
Although, maybe Guatemala won’t seem so bad if I’m in a drugged-out stupor.
“Night, Carly,” said Dad. Five minutes later, he was snoring.
Across the aisle, Raisin Face had a magazine open on his lap. He licked his thumb before turning each page. I didn’t realize I was staring until he turned abruptly to look at me. Our eyes locked, and in that sliver of a moment, my heart threatened to explode right out of my ribcage. I broke away from his gaze and jerked opened my own magazine, pretending to be absorbed in it.
When my heart returned to its normal rhythm, I set the magazine aside, turned on my music, and leaned back against the pillow. I closed my eyes, but thoughts kept racing through my head. I wanted to look at him again, to study his face and give my brain time to place him.
Is he watching me? I wondered. Does he recognize me too?
After a while, I started to relax. Oblivion was calling, but I desperately clung to consciousness, like a mountain climber gripping a rock by her fingernails while dangling above a precipice. The fall was inevitable, but I strained to hold on. It wasn’t that I had trouble sleeping, but the pills kept the monsters at bay.
Finally, unable to fight it any longer, I surrendered. Falling into sleep, I struggled to recall just where I had seen that man’s face before.
Thanks so much to the author and to Lady Amber’s Reviews & PR for this opportunity, thanks to you for reading and remember to like, share, comment and CLICK!
Today I bring you both a new book and a review. I’d been curious about this writer for a while and this is one of the few reviews where I’ve got feedback on the review itself in Amazon (at first somebody complaining about a spoiler, although it is not that kind of novel, and later recommendations and good words).
A monumental new novel about modern family lives from the bestselling author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, and Abraham replied obediently, ‘Here I am’.
This is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. Over the course of three weeks in present-day Washington DC, three sons watch their parents’ marriage falter and their family home fall apart. Meanwhile, a larger catastrophe is engulfing another part of the world: a massive earthquake devastates the Middle East, sparking a pan-Arab invasion of Israel. With global upheaval in the background and domestic collapse in the foreground, Jonathan Safran Foer asks us – what is the true meaning of home? Can one man ever reconcile the conflicting duties of his many roles – husband, father, son? And how much of life can a person bear?
(I haven’t found an e-book version available yet).
Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin Books UK Hamish Hamilton for offering me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I had not read any of Jonathan Safran Foer before, so I can’t really compare it to his previous work. I’ve checked comments about the novel, as I felt quite overwhelmed when I finished its reading and I wanted to check if I was the only one. The opinions by people who’d read his previous novels varied widely, although ‘ambitious’ is one of the words most often used in all the comment, positive and otherwise. Yes, the novel is ambitious. The story is about the disintegration of an upper-middle-class Jewish-American marriage. Jacob, the main character, writes a TV comedy, is married, with three children, a dog, and relatives both in the United States and in Israel. The story is told mostly from his point of view, although there are fragments also told from other characters’ viewpoint, like his grandfather, his wife, his oldest son… Later in the novel there are also inserts that purport to be news articles or news reports about an earthquake that affects most of the Middle-East and has terrible consequences for the region, resulting in what is referred to in the book as ‘the destruction of Israel’. The attempts at equating the family’s fortunes to that of Israel itself are clear when reading the book, although how successful they are it’s open to the individual reader (for me, the situation provides a good way to test the main character’s beliefs and is a good way of offering the reader a better understanding of him, but how literally we’re supposed to take it is a different matter).
This is not an easy book to read, for a variety of reasons. The quality of the writing is excellent, although I found it difficult sometimes not to get lost as to who is talking in very long dialogues with few tags (but I am aware that different readers feel differently about this). Although there is action in the novel, most of the time this is observed and described through the subjectivity of different characters, making it appear slower than in most books. All the characters are highly intellectual and articulate, even Sam, Jacob’s teenage son who does not want to have a Bar Mitzvah. Often, we see the same events from different points of view in different chapters and the actual time frame of the story might become confused. Towards the end of the novel we discover that the famous TV programme Jacob has been privately working on is, in reality, a retelling of his family’s story, so I wondered if this was a book, within a book… There are also many Yiddish terms used that although have been incorporated into English in the US might not be so familiar to readers in other places (although they might be known from TV, and if reading the electronic version there’s always the dictionary at hand).
The characters are easily identifiable but not necessarily that easy to empathise with and might not have much in common with a large part of the readership. They all try their best, but fail often, find excuses for themselves, give up, and are less than heroic. They also lie and feel sorry for themselves, but at times are truly amazing and insightful. Overall. in the book there are funny and witty moments, there are sad moments, and there are moments that made me think. There are images and vignettes I don’t think I’ll ever forget, and reflections I’ll keep thinking about.
There are moments when reading this book that I was gripped by the power of the writing (and yes, at times it reminded me of other writers, like Philip Roth, but perhaps an older version of some of Roth’s earlier novels), and others when I wondered exactly where we were going, but I didn’t mind to be taken along for the ride.
This is not a novel for those who like functional writing that gets out of the way of the story and moves along at a good pace, rather than contemplating itself. But if you enjoy deeply subjective and introspective writing, and in-depth explorations of identity, relationship and what makes us human, I’d recommend it to you.
Thanks to NetGalley, the author and the publishers for providing me with a copy of this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and please, like, share, comment and CLICK!
Oh, and the wonderful Marie Lavender has organised another of her multiauthor events, this time asking a number of writers: What does your writing look like? She’s been kind enough to ask me to take part. Here is the link to her post. I’m aware it will go live on the 11th of November afternoon (Eastern US coast time), so depending on when you’re reading this you might not be able to read it yet, but visit it later if you can, as I’m sure both readers and writers will find it interesting. Thanks!
On Fridays I normally bring you new books, but as I’m sharing my book on Tuesdays, I decided to take the opportunity and combine a new book (it was only published on 14th January) with my own review of the book.
Beside Myself by Ann Morgan
Helen and Ellie are identical twins – like two peas in a pod, everyone says.
The girls know this isn’t true, though: Helen is the leader and Ellie the follower.
Until they decide to swap places: just for fun, and just for one day.
But Ellie refuses to swap back…
And so begins a nightmare from which Helen cannot wake up. Her toys, her clothes, her friends, her glowing record at school, the favour of her mother and the future she had dreamed of are all gone to a sister who blossoms in the approval that used to belong to Helen. And as the years pass, she loses not only her memory of that day but also herself – until eventually only ‘Smudge’ is left.
Twenty-five years later, Smudge receives a call from out of the blue. It threatens to pull her back into her sister’s dangerous orbit, but if this is her only chance to face the past, how can she resist?
Beside Myself is a compulsive and darkly brilliant psychological drama about family and identity – what makes us who we are and how very fragile it can be.
Thanks to Net Galley and to Bloomsbury for providing me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
Beside Myself is a complex story of swapped identities. Two identical twins, Helen and Ellie, swap places, as a game, when they’re only six years old, and they never go back again to their original identities. Helen, the cleverer one, who used to bully her sister, becomes the clumsy one, with no friends, and the scapegoat and victim, and Ellie, becomes a new version of Helen. The novel questions what makes us who we are. Our names? The preconceived ideas others have from us? What we ourselves come to believe?
The story is dark and the way it is written adds to its harshness and to its subjectivity. The chapters alternate between two time frames, one the present of the story, told in the third person, and the other one told chronologically from the time of the swap, initially in the first person, and then, after an incident that makes Helen (now Ellie) dissociate from herself, in the second person. There is little doubt of who is telling the story (apart from perhaps at the very beginning, when Helen is in a state of utter abjection and discovers that her sister is in hospital, in a coma), and we get to live from inside of the protagonist’s head, and see from her point of view, the psychological states she goes through. We share in the character’s experiences, including her anger, confusion and her feelings of powerlessness. We experience the abuse, humiliation, rape, illusions and also her disappointments and dashed hopes. People consistently let her down and she feels trapped in a life and a fate that is not her own, although she has contributed to it. She’s become to embody the monster of her tattoo.
The book works well as a vivid portrayal of a complex mind confronted with an impossible situation, although some of the details of the story call for a degree of suspension of disbelief (and of course the story is subjectively narrated from the point of view of the one character and the reader can’t but wonder at times with her, if she might not have imagined the whole thing). I’m not sure if what happens at the hospital with her sister is to be taken literally (as it is medically not possible) but it is more important what Helen thinks and where that takes her. Considering the general tone of the novel, the ending is satisfying as it provides answers to many of the doubts and questions that plague the novel, and it also shows us the protagonist taking charge of her own life.
This novel is an uncomfortable read but a gripping one, and a novel that nobody will forget in a hurry. It is sure to take readers to places they have never been and they don’t want to be. And that’s one of the roles of good literature.
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