Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

With a full-time job, a husband, and a five year-old, most of my reading gets done on my breaks at work, or maybe in 20 minutes chunks before I fall asleep.  I hardly ever read for more than an hour at one time – either sleep or my short attention span win out.  So it’s a BIG DEAL for me to say that I read most of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (231 pages) in one sitting.  It was a Friday night, and I just felt like devoting my night (after my son fell asleep) to reading.  I did not want to put it down.  I was riveted by the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people falling in love in the midst of an unnamed Middle Eastern city crumbling into sectarian violence.

9780735212176They meet in class when the city had only experienced “some shootings and the odd car bombing.”  They have coffee in the cafeteria, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they talk and get to know one another a bit as any young couple might do.  And then more and more frightening and violent things begin to happen, and then things start to go all to hell, and they are thrown into a much more intimate relationship at a faster pace than they probably would have experienced otherwise.

But then a way out emerges:

Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe…

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I won’t reveal more about the doors. That said, this not a book for everyone.  Lately I’ve read some of those Top Ten Tuesday lists about things that turn people off as readers, and magical realism is a popular turn-off. My tolerance for “weirdness” in books has only increased as I’ve gotten older, so I like magical realism, if it serves the story.  For me, the magical doors to more stable European and American cities worked.  I went with the device as a way to move the narrative along and as an ironic commentary on how often treacherous and deadly real-life migration is.  I ve read that sometimes magical realism makes a reader feel removed from the characters, but I didn’t feel this way at all.  I was fully immersed in Nadia and Saeed’s plight as they tried to find a place to be and tried to navigate complicated emotions in such a new and fragile relationship.

And the writing – my goodness!  It moved me.  There is something essentially human in Mr. Hamid’s writing that touched my heart.  This passage about Saeed’s prayers especially spoke to me:

“…he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other was.  When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we all carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another…”

Because I was moved, because I was transported, I am confident that Exit West will be on my year-end Top Ten list.  I now want to read all of his books with a new sense of urgency.

You can read a great interview with Mr. Hamid (and you should!) from the New York Times here.

Do you have plans to read Exit West?  How do you feel about magical realism or weirdness in books?  What was the last book you read in one (or two) sitting(s)?

R.I.P. Challenge: White Is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

My second pick for the R.I.P. Challenge is Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching, and I loved it.  I’m not sure I fully understood it, or even that it is a book than can be fully understood, but I’m okay with that.

6277227It’s the story of teenage twins, Miranda and Eliot, both about to graduate the British version of high school and embark on their lives as adults.  It’s also the story of a house in Dover, England, the house where the twins live with their father, Luc, who runs a bed and breakfast there.  And it is also the story of Ore, a young black woman adopted and raised by white parents, who meets Miranda at Cambridge.  It’s told from multiple perspectives, including one from the (malevolent) house itself.

One evening she pattered around inside me, sipping something strong that wedged colour into her cheeks, and she dragged all my windows open, putting her glass down to struggle with the stiffer latches.  I cried and cried for an hour or so, unable to bear the sound of my voice, so shrill and pleading, but unable to stop the will of the wind wheeling through me, cold in my insides.  That was the first and last time I’ve heard my own voice.  I suppose I am frightening.  But Anna Good couldn’t hear me.  When she closed me up again it was only because she was too cold.  Most nights she went with the moon, and when it was round she stayed in my biggest bedroom and wouldn’t answer the thing that asked her to let it out

(let you out from where?

let me out from the small, the hot, the take me out of the fire i am ready i am hard like the stones you ate, bitter like those husks)

Miranda suffers from a condition called pica, in which people compulsively eat non-food items; apparently all the women in her mother’s lineage suffered from it as well.  her favorite thing to eat is chalk.  She suffered from it even before her mother Lily’s death, but her mental and physical health take a dramatic turn for the worse after Lily dies. She can’t sleep.  Her brother and father are aware of her condition but are powerless to stop her from harming herself.  Eliot feels the full weight of responsibility for her, since Lily is gone and Luc is pretty much going through the motions of parenting.  After defending Miranda from a serious accusation of violence, the reader sees him sag under the pressure.51ggkdnfrdl

The duty to speak when Miri couldn’t, to make sense when she didn’t.  I checked that no one was around, then put my forehead to my locker and stood against it like a plank, with all my weight in my head.  I stood like that until I stopped feeling like breaking something.  Otherwise I could snap the Biros in my pocket, go into the nearest empty classroom and slam the chairs into the bookshelves, then what?  Go home and smash Lily’s camera?  Thank you, Lily, for leaving me in charge of someone I just can’t be responsible for.  She won’t forget or recover, she is inconsolable.

As the house divulges information about the women in Miranda’s family, it also describes terrifying acts it performs on guests at the B&B.  People who work there feel the evil presence. The house does not like that Miranda has gone away to school.  It does not like that Miranda has a special relationship with Ore.  Ore comes to visit her on a school break and strange and scary things happen to her as well. Miranda knows that something is very wrong, something that she is not strong enough to escape from.  The ending is sad, unsettling, and decidedly ambiguous, with a strong sense of magical realism.

I found myself more engaged with and moved by this novel than by the only other Oyeyemi book I’ve read, Boy, Snow, Bird, which I appreciated but didn’t love.  I will be seeking out the rest of Oyeyemi’s books for sure – she is a strikingly original author.  This is the quintessential October book, equal parts sad and creepy: a mystery, a ghost story, and a haunting love story all at once.  An excellent choice for my first R.I.P.!

 

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

I read Beloved in high school, and Sula in college.  Both were excellent.  But somewhere along the way after college I got the impression that Toni Morrison’s books were intimidating, and I shied away from them.  Having read Tar Baby last year, and Song of Solomon this year, I can now say how foolish a notion that was.  I was utterly captivated by Song of Solomon, and it’s something I most definitely would read againIMG_3026

Set mostly in an unnamed Northern city near the Great Lakes, Solomon focuses on the Dead family – father Macon, cold to his family and obsessed with acquiring rental properties; mother Ruth, desperate for affection; daughters Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians, sheltered into spinsterhood; and our hero, “Milkman” Dead, self-centered and stifled by his father’s ambitions for him.  As he grows up he’s coddled by his mother and cared for by his sisters, while his father only tries to instill in him the love of money and property.  Milkman goes to his aunt, Macon’s sister, Pilate, for something deeper, hungry for connection to his family’s story.  Pilate is a bootlegger, a strong, earthy, witchy woman who wants nothing to do with her brother and his “civilized” pursuits.  She also was born without a navel.  (!)  Her granddaughter, Hagar, falls in love with Milkman, and even though they are cousins they embark on a lengthy romantic relationship.

Milkman doesn’t love Hagar, however, and he realizes he has to find a way to leave his city and his family and make a life of his own, however he has to make that happen.  His father tells him that Pilate’s got a stash of gold buried in the old family land in Virginia. So he leaves Hagar bereft and unhinged, and sets off on his quest in the South.

This is where the story really came alive for me, Milkman’s journey through the South, seeking literal and, ultimately, spiritual treasure.  What really happened to Milkman’s grandfather and grandmother?  Is there really any gold?  Will Milkman be able to dodge the wrath of his best friend-turned-enemy Guitar Bains, who is convinced that Milkman’s holding out on him?  Will Milkman find a way to be his own man?

The compelling plot is enhanced by Morrison’s lyrical, beautiful writing.  At times I wanted to re-read a paragraph simply because it was so jaw-droppingly good.  Here’s a section from the point of view of Hagar once she’s been spurned by Milkman:

The calculated violence of a shark grew in her, and like every witch that ever rode a broom straight through the night to a ceremonial infanticide as thrilled by the black wind as by the rod between her legs; like every fed-up-to-the-teeth bride who worried about the consistency of the grits she threw at her husband as well as the potency of the lye she had stirred into them; and like every queen and every courtesan who was struck by the beauty of her emerald ring as she tipped its poison into the old red wine, Hagar was energized by the details of her mission.  She stalked him.  Whenever the fist that  beat in her chest became that pointing finger, when any contact with him was better than non, she stalked him.  She could not get his love (and the possibility that he did not think of her at all was intolerable) so she settled for his fear.

Hagar, Pilate, Ruth, Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena are interesting characters, and they engaged my empathy.  But this is really Milkman’s story.  I didn’t think too much of Milkman until his journey south, until he started asking questions and seeking answers, the context of his family’s dysfunction.  I was fully invested in this novel, and the final chapters held me breathless with emotion and anticipation.  This is truly a masterwork by a master artist.