Exit West

 

by Mohsin Hamid   

published by: Hamish Hamilton (a Penguin imprint), March 2017

Exit West

My review:

 

‘We are drawn like lovers to the unreachable past, to imagined memories, to nostalgia.’ In the Guardian (Saturday 25 Feb, 2017) Mohsin Hamid argues that in uncertain times, with technology advancing inexorably, we look back to a golden past for certainty.

 

Moving from Lahore to California and back again, as a child Hamid (like the young Brontes) created his own maps and made up stories to make sense of the world. ‘Story telling offers an antidote to nostalgia. By imagining, we create the potential for what might be… to liberate us from the tyranny of what was and is.’ He reasons that we can’t rely on politicians or technologists: we need storytellers who can offer us an alternative – ‘a radical political engagement with the future.’

 

In Exit West he attempts to offer this vision. ‘In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war’ Saeed and Nadia meet over a cup of coffee and begin a love affair. Hamid holds a mirror up to the way we live now, where migration and the constant flow of refugees is the norm. We are shown the fragile transient nature of each individual existence: ‘with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying.’

 

The novel presents technology as something we have come to rely on, but which can quickly transform into a threat or an absence: the skies are full of drones and ‘one day the signal to every mobile phone in the city simply vanished, turned off as if by flipping a switch.’ People escape the escalating conflict through mysterious doors – exits from one country to another where migration is less of a journey, more a rebirth: ‘With a final push he was through, trembling and sliding to the floor like a new born foal.’

 

Nadia and Saeed decide to leave and hardship, hunger, dislocation and insecurity leads to a slow erosion of their relationship. Settling in London, where refugees have moved into vacant properties in Kensington and Chelsea, there is a ‘social media chatter of a coming night of shattered glass’ alluding to the horrors of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. The lights are out in ‘dark London’ and with drones overhead, tanks in the streets and military robots, Nadia and Saeed experience ‘the kind of dread that a small mammal feels before a predator’. But as well as tanks trundling through the city, there are volunteers delivering food, and somehow, and Hamid doesn’t make this clear, an agreement is reached that there won’t be a violent end to the occupation. The couple exit through doors to other countries; but they are moving further apart. Nadia turns away from Saeed as he turns to prayer, trusting in ‘humanity’s potential for building a better world’ because we are all united by loss. Society is beginning to disintegrate and there is a return to ‘smaller units’ because they make ‘more sense’ than huge nations.

 

Ultimately, Nadia and Saeed go their separate ways, but ‘people found things to do and ways to be…and plausible desirable futures began to emerge.’ At the end of the book Nadia and Saeed meet again for a coffee, in old age. There is still insecurity, but there is a new kind of acceptance and a sense of quiet optimism.

 

Written in the generalised, rather flat language typical of a traditional tale, but with passages of intense, limpid prose, Exit West ends by painting a picture of hope in an uncertain world. I for one am not convinced that it’s earned: the whole process is rather vague, more a drift into tranquillity than an active decision to opt for peace. And it flies in the face of the evidence of most of human history. But this is a novel to raise rather than answer questions, to offer us one possible alternative story of how life could be, which is what a good novel should do.

 

Biography:

516_Mohsin_Hamid_Kashi© Ed Kashi

 

Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels: Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to get filthy rich in rising Asia, as well as a book of essays, Discontent and its civilisations. 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.

 

Notes: his website can be found here: http://mohsinhamid.com/

 

The Gift Maker

 

by Mark Mayes

 

published by Urbane Publications, February 2017

 

Genre: Literary fiction/mystery and thrillers

 

the-gift-makerSometimes only a stranger can give the gift of hope.

 

Late one night, Thomas Ruder receives a strange package: a small blue box. Another such item is delivered to his friend Liselotte Hauptmann. These ‘gifts’ will change their lives forever. In the far-off border town of Grenze, a play is to be performed at the Sheol Theatre. Reynard the impresario expects a very special audience. Thomas and Liselotte, together with their friend Johann, are drawn into Reynard’s seductive web, as Daumen, the gift maker, must decide who his master really is.

 

My review: A curious mixture of humour and fantasy makes Mark Mayes The Gift Maker an interesting debut novel. Not normally a fan of fantasy fiction, I was drawn into this novel because of the story, the language and the setting.

 

The plot is well-managed and seamlessly interweaves the three stories of Thomas, Liselotte and Jo (short for Johan) as they are taken out of their own small world to a strange fantasy world where nothing is as it seems. Sometimes a beautiful dream, sometimes horrific and shockingly nightmarish, everything is masterminded by the charismatic Reynard.

 

The writing is of a high quality earning its label of literary fiction, and the reader is challenged with a demandingly literary vocabulary – thank goodness for Kindle so you can click on a word you don’t know. Occasionally the writing strays into the ‘poetic’ in the negative sense of the word, but overall it is lyrical and musical. A pleasure to read.

 

The elements of folk and fairy tale are vividly drawn, with elements of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Andersen and Angela Carter. Wolf-like creatures, huntsmen, magic apples and old couples living in snow-covered mountains make the setting fascinating. I loved the inventiveness of the Germanic names and sinister politics lurking in the background. The world created here is well-drawn, and just slightly off-kilter to make it a fascinating place to spend time. I was strongly reminded of the best kind of children’s stories: The Snow Queen, The Box of Delights and Emil and the Detectives but written for an adult audience.

 

My only disappointment was the ending. Everything was resolved, and in a surprising way, but I would have liked to see the characters back in their university town, changed by their quest, but happily drinking Malzbeer. Maybe that says more about me…

 

Biography:                           

 

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Before becoming a writer, Mark trained as an actor at RADA. He subsequently worked in theatre and television both in the UK and abroad. He has worked variously as a cleaner, care-worker and carer, salesman, barman, medical transcriptionist, warehouse worker, and administrator.

 

Mark has published numerous stories and poems in magazines and anthologies in the UK, Eire, and Italy, and in particular has had several stories published in (or accepted for) the celebrated Unthology series (Unthank Books). His work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. He has been shortlisted for literary prizes, including the prestigious Bridport Prize.

 

In 2009, Mark graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in English (Creative Writing and Critical Practice) from Ruskin College, Oxford.

 

Notes: Currently living in South Wales, Mark is also a musician and songwriter, and some of his songs may be found here: https://soundcloud.com/pumpstreetsongs

 

 

 

The Transition

by Luke Kennard, published by 4th Estate, 2017

My review:The Transition.png

Luke Kennard is already a successful poet and academic. His debut novel is a witty, funny and tender take on the plight of the generation stuck in rental property with huge financial debts and uncertain job prospects.

Feckless hero, Karl is in his thirties, has a Masters degree in the metaphysical poets and debts of £78,000. Determined to use his literary talents, he writes ‘consumer reviews of products he had never used and bespoke school and undergraduate essays’. Karl is devoted to his wife, Genevieve, a primary school teacher who is sensible and bi-polar. They are falling deeper in to debt. To make ends meet he juggles credit cards in a ‘seventeen-card private Ponzi scheme’ and is finally driven to a dodgy job supervising two ‘click-farms’ to ‘generate false traffic for websites’ which turns out to be much worse when his boss is skimming off money for himself.

Faced with a prison sentence Karl opts for an alternative ‘the Transition’ – a ‘holistic approach to getting your life back on track’, like a speeding course ‘except your wife has to go with you and it’s six months’. Still carrying on with their day jobs, Karl and Genevieve have to give up everything and move in with their mentors, an older couple, Janna and Stu who will help them sort their lives out. Right from the beginning the marriage is threatened:

Genevieve is reluctant but takes the scheme seriously; Karl refuses to conform and constantly rebels in a low-level way, and they move further apart. Gradually the novel takes a darker turn as he discovers that the Transition is a social engineering experiment with sinister aims.

In spite of everything life throws at him, Karl never gives up on his devotion to Genevieve; he is a likeable and funny hero in an almost impossible world. A wry look at early 21st century society in the UK, The Transition is a thoroughly entertaining read.

 

Biography:

kennard-luke-2016

Born in 1981 Luke Kennard won an Eric Gregory Award for poetry in 2005. He was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2007, and in 2014 was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets. He is senior lecturer in Creative writing at Birmingham University.

Notes:

The Transition will be BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime from Monday 6th Feb

 http://bbc.in/2juVhJ9

Adventures in modern marriage

adventures-in-modern-marriage

by William Nicholson

published by Quercus, Jan 2017

My review:

Set in the genteel town of Lewes in East Sussex, the latest novel from William Nicholson, successful screenwriter, playwright and novelist, takes place against the background of the 2015 general election. His middle-class, middle-aged characters have mid-life crises in all their forms, but what makes this novel interesting is the questions it raises: can there be honesty and openness in marriage? If female libido is equal to men’s, then is adultery really so bad if desire is a basic need that both men and women experience? And, ultimately once the children leave home and careers are stalling, how do we live our lives?

Everything is thrown up in the air – for this is a comedy in the traditional sense of the word – but, by the end of the novel, all is resolved: there is no shortage of food in Waitrose, all indiscretions are out in the open, and for everyone there is hope and a future.

Apart from the darkest blot on the sunny landscape: Aster, elderly and dying, has lived with bitter memories of her husband who left her forty years ago. I’ll stop missing him after he’s dead… it’s knowing he’s alive and with the doormat that I can’t bear.’ Her daughter, Liz, who was expected to fill his place, only ever received criticism, not praise. In this moving and melancholy portrait, we see what a waste Aster’s angry, unhappy life has been; and her role in the novel is to point up the consequences of not forgiving or accepting. As Aster is slowly eased out of life by the good humoured hospice nurses, it’s Liz who finally rises to the occasion and sorts everyone out when the novel reaches its climax.

The novel ends with a strong message: You have to learn to live the rest of your life in a new way, by aiming for the maturity to enjoy each day like a second childhood, where tomorrow felt like a brand-new day, waiting to unfold, in which old wounds could be healed, and new joys discovered.

Adventures in Modern Marriage is an enjoyable, gently humorous look at marriage and other long relationships and how to live a good life. In asking for openness and understanding, not forgiveness, it is also quietly radical.

Biography:

wm-nicholson-andrew-hasson-for-the-times

Photograph: Andrew Hasson for the Times

William Nicholson is a well-regarded novelist and has written several loosely-linked novels about marriage and contemporary life, largely set in Sussex. He is also a highly successful screenwriter (Gladiator and Les Misérables) and playwright (nominated for a Bafta and an Oscar for his film adaptation of his TV drama turned stage play Shadowlands)

For more information see:  www.williamnicholson.com

Dare to remember

 

by Susanna Beard

published by Legend Press, Feb 2017       

Genre: psychological crime drama

dare-to-remember

 

Review

Lisa is recovering from a violent attack which leaves her with memory loss and PTSD; she is also grieving for her friend, Ali who died in the incident. As she tries to come to terms with what has happened, she gradually learns the truth about the attack and the choices she herself made.

In Susanna Beard’s debut novel there is some gripping writing and some well-painted scenes of Lisa’s run-ins with counselling, social services and the legal system. But what stands out are the small details of normal life and the importance of relationships: Lisa’s instinct is to hide from everyone, yet she is drawn into a close friendship with a woman experiencing domestic abuse, with a lonely elderly neighbour who needs her support and with Riley, her neighbour’s dog. It is through contact with others and by long walks in the countryside with Riley, that Lisa is finally able to accept what has happened to her and to her best friend, and not to blame herself. At the end of the novel there may even be romance on the cards.

 

 

 

 

Swimming lessons

by Claire Fuller

published by Fig Tree/Penguin, 2017

swimming-lessons

My review:

The Sunday Times described a ‘singing simplicity’ in Claire Fuller’s first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. This holds true for her second novel, Swimming lessons where it evokes the landscape of the sea that permeates this very accomplished and fine literary mystery: you smell the seaweed, you feel the pebbles on the beach and you experience the shock of the cold sea itself.

Gil, a successful but ageing writer, surrounded by piles of books he has collected, lives in a beautiful but rundown house by the sea, looked after by his older daughter, Nan. When he catches sight of Ingrid, his wife who has been missing, presumed dead for 12 years, his family gather round to support him. His younger daughter, Flora, who dotes on him, is determined to track down their mother – she has always felt a certain responsibility as she was the last person to see Ingrid before she disappeared from the beach.

The novel is plotted with two, alternating timelines: in the present day Flora tries to find out the truth about her father’s writing career, his complex relationships and what has happened to her mother. While in1992 her mother, Ingrid, writes letters to Gil telling the history of their marriage from her own point of view – from innocent, idealistic student, to disappointed, middle-aged mother. She hides each letter in one of his many books with the proviso that only he is to read them. Flora has no idea that the letters exist. In both stories swimming in the sea is a major theme: for Ingrid it is therapy, an escape from domesticity, and from a marriage that has not been what she expected; for Flora swimming is a way of healing and for her to be close to her mother.

Clare Fuller skilfully interweaves the strands to form a very satisfying novel that leaves the reader guessing right up to the end.  Swimming lessons is a dissection of domestic relationships, sibling rivalry and friendships; it examines the long-lasting impact that mistakes and deceptions have on a family and friends. This novel is deftly plotted, beautifully written, moving, complex and intriguing. A book, like the sea, to immerse yourself in.

claire-fuller

Biography:

Claire Fuller has a first degree in sculpture which is evident in the fine detail she gives to physical descriptions of the natural world. She began writing when she was forty and has a Masters in Creative and Critical writing. Her debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days won the Desmond Elliot Prize for debut fiction in 2015, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick for Spring 2016 as well as being shortlisted for other major prizes.

Notes:

Claire Fuller blogs on https://clairefuller.co.uk

Homegoing

by Yaa Gyasi

published by Penguin

homegoing-by-yaa-gyasi

My review:

So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.                                                                                                           Yaa Gyasi

Effia and Esi are two sisters who have never met. Beginning in ‘the musky heat of Fanteland’ on the Gold coast of Africa (present day Ghana) both sisters set off on diverging paths, one to slavery, one to marry a slave-owner.

In what is amazingly her debut novel, Yaa Gyasi evokes the horrors of human trafficking initiated by the West, but isn’t afraid to underline the complicity of African people in the slave trade. Her focus is unflinching as she follows the history of each successive branching of the sisters’ family tree, through seven generations, up to the present day. She offers us fourteen interlinked portraits of African and African-American people, struggling against the odds stacked against them, from one generation to the next.

Gyasi makes clear the roots of current power struggles in the African continent, as well as the lasting legacy of racism in contemporary USA. Through vivid characterisation, deft storytelling and convincing settings, this is a history lesson on the iniquities and repercussions of slavery that is more powerful and long-lasting than any history text.

This authoritative novel has stayed with me, and is one that I can’t recommend highly enough. It should be a set text on every A level literature syllabus.

 

Biography:

YaaGyasi-e1466187313686[1].jpg

Born in Ghana, Yaa Gyasi moved to the USA as a child and settled with her family in Alabama. She published her debut novel Homegoing at the age of 26 in summer 2016.

 

Notes:

A homegoing service is an African-American Christian funeral tradition marking the going home of the deceased to the Lord or to heaven. It is a celebration that has become a vibrant part of African American history and culture. It can be traced back to the arrival of African slaves in America. Early during the slave trade, slaves believed death meant their soul would return home to their native Africa. They were not allowed to congregate to perform any kind of ritual for burying the dead because slave owners were fearful the slaves would conspire to create an uprising during any such gathering. Later, in an effort to control the slave population, slave owners introduced slaves to white Christianity to placate and subdue them. (Wikipedia)