book review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

US pub date: March 7, 2017

★★★★★

Sometimes you encounter a book that’s been so hyped up that you’re almost afraid to read it, because there’s no way it could meet or surpass your expectations, right? But then sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and let yourself believe the hype, and Exit West is the reason why, because this book was every bit as extraordinary as I’d been led to believe.

Exit West is a delicate yet hard-hitting exploration of the immigration experience, and of the strength of character required to leave your home and family, without any guarantee that where you’re going will be safer than what you’re leaving behind. Both hopeful and achingly sad, this short little novel is an absolute tour de force.

Saeed and Nadia, two young people from an unnamed country on the brink of civil war, meet and fall in love, even as they find themselves living in increasingly dangerous conditions as their city is torn apart. Meanwhile rumors start to crop up of doors that can transport you to another part of the world, but not without a price, and not without danger and uncertainty. Left with no choice, Saeed and Nadia pay for a passage through a door, and step through. These doors are not the point of the story, so those who were drawn to this novel for its promise of magical realism may be disappointed; they’re merely the abstract literary device that Mohsin Hamid chooses to employ in order to elevate themes of relocation, alienation, and the commonality of the human experience.

As Saeed and Nadia are bandied about to different locations across the globe, their relationship matures and regresses in accordance with each new circumstance they find themselves in. We follow their journey from the early moments of attraction to the quiet tedium of a love gone stale, as their relationship eventually, inevitably takes a turn that tugs at your heart as a reader, because even in a story characterized by fear and hunger and war and brutality – especially in a story characterized by these things – we want to believe that it’s possible to move forward, that it’s possible that love and normalcy can be retained. Devastating as this story is at times, it’s also not without hope, thanks in part to being grounded so firmly in the lives of these two compelling central characters, who grow and change as needed to survive, but who never become irrevocably hardened by the horrors they experience.

While there’s an undeniable universality to this story, this was a novel written for the times we’re living in, that speaks, most ostensibly, to the Syrian refugee crisis. We can’t turn a blind eye to the millions of families and individuals affected by this crisis, and Hamid uses his narrative to challenge us to inhabit a more compassionate and forgiving world. (More information on the Syrian refugee crisis here: x, x, x.)

Hamid’s prose is exquisite. I can’t conclude this review without mentioning that. This unconventional journey that he takes us on is chronicled in a writing style that’s appropriately wistful, poetic, subtle, and powerful. It’s exactly this effect of the writing paired with the story that makes this novel so unique and striking.

Part literary fiction, part romance, part war story, with a touch of magic, Exit West is the sort of book that has a lot to offer. But it’s also a quiet story, and rather than expecting to be blown away right out of the gate, you have to be willingly to immerse yourself in this novel and allow it to slowly begin to wash over you, until you’re completely submerged.

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book review: Marlena by Julie Buntin

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Marlena by Julie Buntin

US pub date: April 4, 2017

★★★☆☆

Hmm. I really wanted to love this, but there was something about it that made it difficult for me to really sink my teeth in. I think part of it was just that this story is so familiar. Plain Jane narrator becomes enamored with a mysterious, glamorous, troubled girl. The Girls (Emma Cline). The Strays (Emily Bitto). Even stuff like The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins), to an extent. I wanted so much for Marlena to be different, or if not different, at least special, because in theory I have no problem with the bare bones of this story: I like the exploration of female friendships, and I like female coming of age stories. I just didn’t get anything out of this one. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

This is the story of two girls, Cat and the titular Marlena, who are friends for less than a year in high school, after Cat’s family relocates to Marlena’s town. By the end of that year, Marlena is dead, and she’s made an indelible mark on Cat which continues to define her throughout adulthood, as she struggles with an alcoholism that she picked up in her adolescence. This book promises heartbreak and emotional devastation, but doesn’t deliver. I’m left feeling rather apathetic about these characters, and for such a character-driven novel, that’s probably not the best impression to be left with.

For such a short book, there are too many pages of nothing happening. Cat skips school, Cat smokes a cigarette. Marlena pops a pill. Cat’s mom drinks wine before bed. Intriguing characters lurk in the background: Marlena’s father, Marlena’s drug dealer. But every time they appear to get close enough to touch, the narrative is derailed, usually by Cat smoking another cigarette or Marlena popping another pill. This story really goes nowhere; which, again, fine, I do enjoy character studies – but these characters’ entire personalities are captured almost too sufficiently in the first five pages. Cat the reserved, thoughtful one who’s so desperate to fit in she’s willing to compromise parts of herself to do so, and Marlena the wild and reckless one that everyone’s drawn to, even when she treats others terribly. Julie Buntin lays all her cards on the table too early. There’s nothing I got from this book that I wouldn’t have got if I’d stopped reading after the first chapter.

There are two timelines in Marlena, the present, and twenty years ago. Simple, right? Except. Twenty years ago, according to this story, characters all had their own cell phones, YouTube and Facebook were just becoming popular. … in 1997?!? Either this is a glaring error, or the ‘present’ chapters are really taking place in 2027, not 2017 – which would be fine! But there’s never any explicit information given about the date, and given the frequency with which this (anachronistic?!) technology is mentioned, this ambiguity becomes very distracting very fast.

What I did like about this book were the questions it raised about moral responsibility, about survivor’s guilt, about how we either put our teenage years behind us or let them define us. There was a lot of talk about ‘truth,’ as well, and how subjective of a concept that is. If at times a bit heavy-handed, this book was at least thought-provoking in that regard. Julie Buntin is a good writer. This just wasn’t a unique enough story for it to make much of an impression on me.

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book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

US pub date: February 7, 2017

★★★★★

 

A beautiful book from start to finish. Gentle, elegant, and deeply moving, this one will stay with me for a long time.

Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family through multiple generations, spanning nearly a hundred years and multiple locations. The novel begins against the backdrop of the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, and as the story progresses, it explores the unique discrimination faced by Koreans living in Japan in the twentieth century.

Our story commences with Sunja, a young woman from a small Korean town who finds herself pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and seemingly out of options. When a traveling minister, a kind-hearted but sickly man, agrees to take her to Japan and marry her, the wheels of the story are set into motion, as we follow Sunja, her husband Isak, and the life they manage to create together while facing constant adversity.

This is a quiet book whose thematic richness is all the more powerful for the subtlety with which it is rendered. Questions of home, nationality, and cultural identity permeate this nearly 500 page narrative, manifesting and reinforcing themselves in the lives of characters across generations, but Min Jin Lee rather expertly leaves the reader to draw our own conclusions. Lee resists any temptation to simplify the complicated Japanese-Korean relationship, as the ambitiously sweeping narrative manages to paint a comprehensive picture of the Korean immigrant experience. Historical elements are integrated seamlessly into our story of the fictional Baek family, continuously edifying but never overwhelming the reader. While Lee’s careful narrative doesn’t dilute the intricacy of the topics which she showcases, it’s still a rather accessible introduction for readers who may not be familiar with the complex socio-political history of these two countries.

Lee’s writing is light and elegant, and for such a long novel the pace rarely falters. While it may not be a story filled to the brim with action, it keeps you turning pages, mourning and grieving and celebrating with these characters who feel as close as family by the end. I raced through this in a couple of days and now feel sad that it’s over.

Above all else a nuanced exploration of cultural identity, Pachinko is an incredible achievement. I cannot recommend this highly enough to fans of family sagas, historical fiction, fiction set in East Asia, or really any reader who just wants a good story.

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