Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West – a quiet challenge

exit westThis novel, whilst timeless in its depiction of people forced to leave their homes because of national and religious uprisings, feels very important right now. As in today. Angela Merkel has won a fourth term – but Germany, like many other countries in the past few years, has seen a surge in popularity for more ‘nationalistic’ parties. This is not a political blog, but it’s hard to avoid politics in literature, and anyway, perhaps literature is one of the best places to explore the impact of political swings and surges on the individual. This, for me, is why Hamid’s latest novel is so powerful, even if it takes a little while to get going.

We follow the developing love affair between Saeed and Nadia, inhabitants of an un-named city which is slowly taken over by militants and sporadic acts of violence. Initially, danger seems remote, seems to be something that can be lived with: ‘In the distance Saeed’s family heard the sound of automatic gunfire, flat cracks that were not loud yet carried to them cleanly. They sat a little longer. Then Saeed’s mother suggested they return inside.’ However, the violence inexorably moves closer, encircling their lives, until Saeed and Nadia make the decision to leave. And it is this decision to flee, echoed by other characters’ stories briefly glimpsed in Hamid’s narrative, which breaks with the realism established thus far, and which sets this novel apart. People are discovering doorways which will open up elsewhere, safe or otherwise. These doors are passages to new lives, new challenges. Before she steps through, Nadia is struck by the door’s ‘darkness, its opacity …felt equally like a beginning and an end.’ All around the world, these doors are appearing and boundaries are collapsing. Border controls and walls can be easily circumvented. The open door is an obvious symbol of welcome, but Hamid’s characters quickly realise that mass movements around the planet bring their own problems for the individuals involved

Nadia and Saeed make several moves into different shifting communities, some more welcoming than others and, late in the novel, Saeed decides ‘nativeness is a relative matter’. Hamid’s doors allow the rate of global migration to speed up; his doors are a clever device to show what might be if we accept such shifts. However, whilst he might be relying on a literary trick to get his protagonists around the world, this novel remains rooted in a familiar present: ‘The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too.’ I’m not sure it’ll win the Man Booker Prize, but I read this novel as a quiet plea for generosity towards those who seek refuge in these tumultuous times, and for that reason, I think it’s an important one.

Read my reviews of other novels on the Man Booker shortlist here:

Fiona Mozley’s Elmet – a very strong contender.

Lincoln in the Bardo – a master craftsman at work

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Lincoln in the Bardo – a master craftsman at work

At the time of reviewing, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo seems to be the hot favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, and I can see why it has its staunch supporters. I’m ashamed to admit that this is the first time I’ve read Saunders’ work and, based on this one, I’ll certainly be seeking out the rest of his oeuvre PDQ. But should it win?

lincolnLincoln in the Bardo is an exhilarating read and one which deserves all the praise being heaped upon it. I had fully expected to find it an emotional, harrowing read, given that Saunders has taken the death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son as his starting point. I had not expected to find the novel so utterly hilarious at times, thanks to the voices of the other inhabitants of the ‘Bardo’, a Tibetan term for the transitional stage between life and death, who find the late Willie Lincoln in their cemetery and decide that they must help him to complete his journey onwards, however unwilling he might be.

Saunders’ use of multiple historical sources and narratives serves to remind us that the sixteenth President of America and his wife are grieving parents, and Lincoln is presiding over a country at war with itself, a country watching its sons die on a scale previously unseen. The sense of loss, both at a personal and national level, is keenly noted and hard to read at times, given the historical actuality of it all. One of the voices we hear is that of another grieving father, a Robert Hansworthy of Boonsboro, Maryland. In his letter to his President, he asks, ‘How miny more ded do you attend to make sir afore you is done?’ Death hangs heavy in this novel.

However, the other sections of the novel, those narrated by the inhabitants of the cemetery, veer from high tragedy to a fine sense of the absurd, depending on which ‘ghost’ (for want of a better term) is speaking. Some have suffered terribly in their lives, whilst others carry the evidence of their former behaviour and desires for all to see. In the case of Hans Vollman, struck down before his marriage to his beautiful young wife is consummated, this includes a massive appendage, the comic value of which is worthy of some of the best Eighteenth Century literary gags. I also loved the fate of Trevor Williams, a former hunter, who is compelled to hold in his arms, ‘with loving attention’, all the animals he has ever dispatched until they feel ready to ‘trot or fly or squirm away’.

The reader quickly gets used to the cacophony of voices all eager to tell their tales and play their part in the new drama in the cemetery, for rarely have any of them been visited once the ceremony of the funeral is finished. But this is what Lincoln is doing, unable to leave his son to his final resting place. It falls to the ‘ghosts’ to help his son accept that he must let go.

This is undoubtedly a virtuoso piece of writing by a master craftsman. I did cry and I did laugh aloud. If this had been shortlisted last year, or the year before come to that, I would have had no doubt in my mind that this would be the clear winner. But this year’s shortlist is a strong one and Saunders has stiff competition. I loved it – it is highly original – but it’s not the only shortlisted novel to linger in my mind after I’ve turned the final page. All bets are off.

Fiona Mozley’s Elmet – a very strong contender.

ElmetMozley’s writing is so perfect in its tone and depth that it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel. It is literally breath-taking – I found myself holding my breath as I read the concluding chapters – and rich in its details. The novel’s epigraph, taken from Ted Hughes’ Remains of Elmet, is fitting not just because of the idea of Elmet as a ‘badlands’, a ‘sanctuary for refugees from the law’, but because Mozley’s writing is just as beautifully poetic as Hughes’ when she invokes her protagonist’s love of the Northern landscape and wildlife around him.

Her story is narrated by Daniel, a boy who has lived with his sister and father on the margins of society in a house built by hand. Daniel’s father, John, understands the land they live on, and he and his children carve out a rich existence in the woods, relying on hunting, foraging and favours returned for John’s help for local villagers. John is a strong man, a giant in his son’s eyes, who has used his strength to find work and make money from bare-knuckle fights. Now he wishes to be his own man, wishes to remove himself and his children from the reach of those who seek to make money from the backs of others. He is part of an ancient way of living. In this sense, he reminded me of Jez Butterworth’s Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem, but this Green Man faces a much darker, more fully-realised opposition. Once John becomes involved in a struggle to challenge the power of the still-feudal landowners, led by the deeply unpleasant Mr Price, we are all too aware that his family’s home and safety are precarious.

Cathy, Daniel’s sister, is a deeply compelling character from the outset. We know on the first page that she is going to be at the heart of events, and her sense, and fear, of her burgeoning womanhood is part of what makes this taut novel so gripping. She remains something of an enigma to Daniel but the bond between the three main characters is clear and heart-wrenching. She will prove to be very much her father’s daughter.

It may well be up against some literary heavy-weights for the Man Booker Prize, but this novel, like the narrator’s Daddy, is a very strong contender and deserves all possible plaudits. It is one of the best novels I have ever read.

Charlie Laidlaw’s The Things We Learn When We’re Dead – Clever and Thought-Provoking

Things we learnThis is a brave novel, juggling the BIG questions with a confident voice. Laidlaw gives us a double narrative: we follow Lorna Love’s story, with her life as a Law student in Edinburgh, and all the people she loves, works with, and loses, and we also have Lorna’s ‘afterlife’ sections – something the reader has been prepared for with Laidlaw’s title – in which she struggles with the concept of her own demise and her strong desire to return to those she loves. The fact that the first chapter is called ‘End’ quickly establishes the fact Laidlaw is going to enjoy challenging the conventions and asking his reader to take a leap with him. It is down to the high quality of his writing that taking such a jump is so easy to do. You know you’re in safe hands.

Lorna, with all her frustrations and desires, makes for a compelling protagonist. There is a good deal of warm humour in Laidlaw’s work, not least when he’s writing about Lorna’s part-time job at Happy Mart, but he also handles the more difficult periods of Lorna’s life very sensitively. I particularly loved the way the way he dealt with the relationship with her parents. Lorna isn’t always nice about those around her, but her desire to make a difference in the world, set alongside her conflicting envy of those who have more comfortable lives, makes her very real. In this respect, she makes for an excellent character to follow, but is not necessarily different from so many others. However, the allusions to the Wizard of Oz add a sense of a quest to her story, a sense that all of Lorna’s experiences are going somewhere, and these, together with the ‘Afterlife’ sections (my term for the sections which explore Lorna’s experiences after she dies), make Lorna and this novel unique and memorable.

Laidlaw’s ‘afterlife’ sections are both very clever and very amusing, walking the fine line between a rich and quirky sci-fi imagination and the use of such a setting to ask fundamental questions about what it is to be human and make choices. This is perhaps where Laidlaw is at his most daring – it’s a clever idea and one he carries off with confidence. There’s also a good line about David Beckham.

I loved this novel – it is very clever in its construction and rewards a close reading. I’m already waiting for his next novel.

 

Thanks to the author for a copy of The Things We Learn When We’re Dead in exchange for an honest review.

Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder – Claustrophobic brilliance

A warning – this review mentions specific plot details, so look away now if you have still to read this brilliant novel (just make sure you do read my piece eventually!)

The WonderEmma Donoghue’s protagonist, Lib, is a highly competent English nurse who is out of her depth in a Catholic Irish community in the mid-Nineteenth Century, a place haunted by memories of famine, and where food and even the act of eating has become highly problematised. She has been employed to observe the every movement of Anna, a young girl who has apparently not eaten for months and yet seems to be thriving. Anna is regarded by some in her community as a miracle, but the atheistic Lib has already decided she is a charlatan, ‘a false, little baggage.’ It is a measure of Donoghue’s skill that she is able to maintain Lib’s suspicion, and highly prejudiced views of the Irish community, whilst shaping her into a sympathetic character as her reserve towards the child crumbles. The community’s need for Anna to be special is set against Lib’s sense of her own scientific insight and training at the hands of ‘Miss N’. What the community believes, or wishes to believe, becomes a darker proposition as the novel progresses, and Lib’s initial professional detachment is replaced with a deep-seated need to save the girl she now feels she is complicit in helping to starve, merely by being present as an observer.

The novel is brilliantly claustrophobic – not just because of Anna’s cell-like room – but because of the way the adults in Anna’s life choose to close their minds to difficult or challenging realities, even if it means allowing Anna to die. Somewhere along the line, this community has lost sight of the little girl at the heart of the story. It takes a journalist seeking his own story to make Lib see the reality of what she is being drawn into. Donoghue does confinement and the power of parental love well, as we’ve seen before, and it is the fight for Anna and for the truth behind her story which had me racing through this novel. I had to know how it ended – and Donoghue didn’t let me down. I’m conscious of trying to find a new superlative to cover just how good this novel is. None really suffice – I absolutely loved it.

Elisabeth Hobbes – A New Voice in Historical Romances

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Hobbes’ novels have a rich depth of historical knowledge – and there are no jarring anachronisms – which means a reader is quickly immersed in the medieval world of her work. She writes very successful romances, with all the dramatic tension and passion we demand of such stories, but leaves us in no doubt that her characters live in uncertain, violent times. Indeed, her fourth novel, The Saxon Outlaw’s Revenge, begins, ‘They hanged the rebels in the market square’, and in her first novel, Falling for her Captor, the heroine gives orders for a villain to be hung, drawn and quartered. Gentle, conventional bodice-rippers these are not. Her women are fully aware of their precarious situations, but they are ultimately strong in their convictions and refuse to concede anything to Hobbes’ heroes until the men have proved their worth.

The difficulties Hobbes’ medieval women face is made very clear in her latest novel, Redeeming the Rogue Knight. We’ve met Roger before – he is the legitimate son (but an utter bastard in his dealings with women) in Hobbes’ earlier novel, The Blacksmith’s Wife – and part of the fun Hobbes has here is showing his growing awareness of the consequences of his treatment of women. In this new novel, Roger is forced to rely on Lucy, an innkeeper and single mother, for safety. He has been badly injured in the shoulder and Hobbes makes much of the idea that this man’s power in the world has been based on his physical prowess. He’s humbled by his new vulnerability and thrown by Lucy’s refusal to give into his masculine charms. For me, the turning point in their relationship occurs when he realises that Lucy, forced by debt and potential penury, is visiting the local miller with the sole purpose of paying her debts through sexual favours. Roger arrives in time to prevent the woman he has grown to love having to prostitute herself, but Lucy is quick to point out that his behaviour towards women in the past has been little different to the transaction the miller proposed, ‘you use women like me until you’ve had enough, then you leave us to mend our lives and our reputations as best we can.’

In Hobbes’ novels, women are all too aware of the patriarchal society they inhabit. In The Saxon Outlaw’s Revenge, Constance’s late sister suffered at the hands of a cruel husband who now looks to his sister-in-law to take his dead wife’s place. The only heroine with any degree of independence is Eleanor Peyton in A Wager for the Widow, and even she is constantly reminded of the need to remarry. Fortunately, Hobbes’ genre means that the heroes, however caddish they might initially appear, ultimately seek fulfilling, romantic relationships. Her marriages are ones of love, rather than transactions, and ones which fulfil readers’ expectations of highly satisfying romances. However, these are not easy lives and Hobbes does not shy away from the darker side of her heroines’ experiences.

 

Hobbes' covers

 

Thanks again to Lucy at http://www.lucideditorial.co.uk for checking my spacing!

Reader, I Married Him – Jane’s Legacy

ReaderI have to start this one with a confession: when I first read Jane Eyre at the age of 14, I hated it. I hated her. I thought she was tedious and wet. She wasn’t Catherine Earnshaw. But I knew I was probably missing something. As an adult I re-read it and I revised my opinion. Now I could admire Charlotte Bronte’s heroine for her gumption and strength. She might be ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’, but she isn’t tedious and she isn’t a drip. As a female protagonist, she is a hugely significant development in literature. But this time round my discomfort sprang from other elements of the novel. However romantic Rochester’s ‘string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame’ is, I cannot forget his madwoman in the attic, and I cannot help but feel uneasy at the fragile balance of power at the end of Bronte’s novel.

It was this jumble of feelings which meant I was intrigued by this collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre and edited by Tracy Chevalier. These twenty-one stories, all taking very different routes into, and away from, Bronte’s novel are written by some of today’s most brilliant and inventive female authors. Some, like Francine Prose’s The Mirror, with its focus on gaslighting (which succeeded in confirming my own thoughts on Rochester’s motives), or Salley Vickers’ Reader, She Married Me, offer us a new light on Rochester’s character. Whilst I struggled a little with the idea of the vulnerable husband, it does cast back a new light on the original – Vickers’ Jane is rather steelier than I might have ever wanted to acknowledge.

I enjoyed the new versions of the main relationship, but I really loved the stories which gave distinctive voices to hitherto ‘silent’ female characters, as with Helen Dunmore’s Grace Poole Her Testimony, or new voices to historical figures. This is nothing new in itself, of course, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife have set the standard for such writing, but this is such a rich area for exploration. My most favourite story of all, Emma Donoghue’s Since First I Saw Your Face, is only obliquely linked to Jane Eyre but it explores the impact of thwarted passions and an unequal marriage from the perspective of a woman largely lost to history, Ellen/Elizabeth Hall, who fell in love with the wife of Edward Benson (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 – 1896).

Other stories focused more generally on marriage and love. Two I particularly enjoyed were Lionel Shriver’s The Self-Seeding Sycamore (it’s just joyous in its conclusion), and Elizabeth McCracken’s Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark. The latter is a new writer for me and I look forward to reading more of her work. However, I’m now going back to Jane Eyre again to re-read it through fresh eyes. Such is the brilliance of this collection.

 

Thanks to Lucy at http://www.lucideditorial.co.uk for checking my posts 🙂

 

Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place – A Rich Supporting Cast

o'farrellIn Farrell’s seventh novel we circle around Daniel’s and Claudette’s stories, slowly working through the layers of their lives in order to arrive at a clear sense of their marriage, if such a thing is possible. The chapters, offering perspectives from different characters, don’t follow an obvious chronology and the effect is that of a slow reveal, a piecing together of the narrative strands. Daniel is a lecturer, Claudette a long-vanished film star who shuns the limelight and has chosen to hide away in Ireland on a property with twelve gates to keep out the curious. For me, she remains a deliberately shadowy creature, a construction documented in fragments, some of which make up the Auction Catalogue five chapters in. As protagonists, I sometimes found Claudette and Daniel hard to like, indeed, hard to ‘see’ at times. It was the panoply of supporting characters who made me love the novel they all inhabit, however briefly in some cases.  In many ways this is a novel of missed chances , unspoken desires, and things lost, particularly for the women. Daniel’s mother experiences a chaste and enduring passion for another man. Nicola, a vital but vulnerable former lover of Daniel’s, deserves her own novel, as does Rosalind, a sixty-eight year old woman who’s travelling the world alone for the first time after the break up of a long marriage. She meets Daniel on a expedition to the Bolivian salt desert and she’s probably my favourite character of all  – she’s reveling in her new independence after years of marriage and unspoken grief for her three miscarried babies, and she provides the novel with one of its key observations: ‘I have a theory,’ she says, looking far ahead, at where salt meets sky, ‘that marriages end not because of something you did say but because of something you didn’t.’  And this is at the heart of the novel – that which is unsaid and the consequences therein.  O’Farrell leaves us with what is hopefully a teaser for Rosalind’s own book. When asked about her own plans, ‘that,’ she says, as the truck’s engine starts beneath them, ‘is another story.’ I really do hope so.