Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

exit-westExit West is one of those novels that I’m still puzzling over, some time after finishing it. The author makes some interesting choices in terms of technique. So this review is really my reflections up to now rather than a settled opinion.

First, Exit West is narrated by an omniscient narrator with a cool, detached voice. This adds to the sense that the events it describes are normal, unsurprising. It tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, who live in an unnamed city in a country on the brink of civil war.

Saeed has light stubble and Nadia wears a black robe, at a time when people could still choose what to wear, ‘so these choices meant something’. They become involved and in contrast to their appearances, it is Nadia who has broken with expectations by living independently, estranged from her family, while Saeed still lives at home.

At first they do the things new couples do. They text incessantly. They use recreational drugs by moonlight. They listen to music and negotiate their attitudes to sex. But the civil war takes first their freedom and then their safety. It seems like the only option is to escape.

Saeed and Nadia leave through one of the ‘doors’ by which refugees leave war zones, generally after handing over money to traffickers. The ‘doors’ open and close apparently randomly, offering an abrupt dislocation from one place to another. It suggests something magical, without human agency, while the reality is anything but.

While Saeed and Nadia’s home city is unnamed, the events described feel contemporary and real. However the places where they go after they leave, which are named, known locations, are subtly different, as if we’re looking at a possible future or an alternate reality. They are in social upheaval, they are more segregated, even less hopeful than they are now.

Then there are vignettes throughout the book interrupting the main narrative, showing immigrants and refugees in other regions suddenly appearing through doors, as if to remind us that this is happening everywhere, all the time.

Saeed and Nadia are well realised characters, at once unique and recognisable. As they leave their home the narrative fragments and their stories become less absorbing. It is as if in becoming refugees, whose main preoccupation is survival, whose choices are circumscribed, they have less time to be psychologically complex and interesting, not only to a reader but perhaps to themselves.

So while the story didn’t engage me throughout the book, the ideas did, and still do. Exit West challenges you to think in new ways about a familiar issue, to question what you understand when you see generic terms like refugee or migrant applied to millions of individuals, who each has their home, their emotional life, their door, and has to make the decision to take that chance, or not, while they can.

I received a copy of Exit West from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Exit West on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For a different take on the immigrant experience, try Behold the Dreamers

Is editing the most creative part of writing a novel?


I sometimes hear writers say they find editing their novel tedious. For me it’s the opposite. I’m currently editing my next novel and remembering why I love writing.

I should define what I mean by editing in this context. I’m talking about the substantive editing you do when you’ve got a roughly novel-shaped, full-length manuscript, one that’s good enough to show to your trusted reader but is definitely not ready to face the world. For me that’s normally around the fourth draft.

So, what is it about editing?

A worthy opponent

I need something to work against. I’d like to say it’s because I see every side of an argument. Maybe I’m just contrary. Give me a draft and I’ll tell you all the things that are wrong with it and all the ways I could do it better (even if it was an earlier incarnation of ‘I’ who wrote that draft). You can’t do that with a blank page.

It’s not writing, it’s typing

…as Truman Capote almost said of the Beat Generation. The truth is, all draft writing is typing. It might take you an hour or a day to write 500 words. It will take around a minute to read them. A scene that seems to drag on forever in the drafting will turn out to be too abrupt when you read it back.

Whereas you can edit almost in real time. You can read your draft in the same way a reader will, and see what you’ve missed. You will often be surprised. The character you thought was weak turns out to be intriguing. The scene you thought was hilarious falls flat. It doesn’t matter. You can put it right.

Wrestling an octopus

For me, structure is the biggest challenge – telling a story with an entertaining plot that also has emotional truth and complexity. You have problems coming at you from all angles. Maybe I can only hold so many things in my head at once, but I tend to focus on getting the shape of the story right first. Refining the rhythm and the texture of the language comes later.

This for me is the reward. Like writing haiku, I can weigh up every word, capture the curve of an eyebrow, the significance of a pause, the particular scent of the breeze on a summer’s day. (Though it’s easy to become obsessed at this stage, and, like Oscar Wilde, spend all morning taking out a comma, and in the afternoon put it back.)

A productive member of society

Creating something from nothing is capricious. You can sit yourself at your desk, you can use various techniques (and waste a fortune on apps and productivity guides) but you can’t make yourself be creative, in the way that you can make yourself do the washing up or fill out your tax return.

When I’m at the early stage of a project, I find it really hard to make progress. This is not uncommon, I know. This is the point at which writers beat themselves up, despising themselves as lazy and undisciplined.

I’ve been writing seriously for over 20 years and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is just the way it is for me. But when I’m editing the work flows easily. If I’m at home, I can do it all day and into the evening. That sense of shame and failure, when you’ve spent all day with nothing to show for it, is gone.

Inspiration and revelation

editing-squareFor me editing is the point at which ideas fly. That odd little scene that seemed to add nothing needs only a tweak to reveal its significance. The chapters that resolutely refused to line up can do a little shuffle and suddenly give an elegant new shape to the narrative. Ruthless cuts can be liberating, new scenes flow easily because they know exactly the space they need to fill. The underlying themes and connections become much clearer. You will even discover that your unconscious has planted some without telling you (but you should still take credit for them).

Marginal gains

You hear about this all the time from sportspeople. Small, incremental changes can have striking effects on overall performance. It is the same with editing. Add a line of dialogue to seed the mystery, change a few words to make a description zing, tighten up a quiet middle chapter to give it energy – small changes can have a bit impact.

So those are some of the reasons why I love editing. I suppose how you feel about editing also depends on your writing process, but I’ll save that for another day.

Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo

stay-with-meYetide and her husband Akin are a middle-class couple living in Nigeria in the 1980s. He works in a bank, she runs her own hairdressing salon. They apparently have a happy marriage. But they (or more particularly, Yetide) are under great pressure from Akin’s mother because they do not have a child. They have both grown up in polygamous households and she persuades Akin to take a second wife.

Yetide is a wonderful character, alternately beautiful and strong, and isolated and bullied. Her own mother died in childbirth and she was ostracised by her husband’s other wives. By contrast, she adores Akin’s mother and this makes it harder for her to stand up to her. These experiences compound her own feelings about not being able to have a child and the lengths she is willing to go.

The narration switches between Yetide and Akin’s points of view as we see the strain their changed relationship places on them. You get a powerful sense of the conflicting pressures on them and the importance of family. I also enjoyed the details of their daily life. The minor characters are brilliantly drawn and there is warmth and humour entwined with darker moments. The increasing sense of threat from political events entwines with their personal story.

I did have some issues with the latter part of the book. First we have Yetide’s perspective on a key event, then it doubles back to give us Akin’s. This doesn’t tell you anything you couldn’t have worked out, and slows the story down just when the tension should be rising. I also struggled with the plausibility of some elements of the plot and the end was a little predictable. But despite these reservations, it was a fascinating insight into Nigerian life and the conflict between the ideal of motherhood and the reality.

I received a copy of Stay with Me from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Stay with Me on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For a different take on polygamy in Nigeria, try The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

behold-the-dreamersJende brings his wife Neni and their son to the US from Cameroon. They have high hopes for a better life. Jende is looking for a decent income, Neni wants to train as a pharmacist and to escape a society where life for a woman is circumscribed.

As Neni pursues her studies, Jende gets a great opportunity, to become a chauffeur to a senior employee at Lehman Brothers. This is 2007 so we know what is coming, but to Jende and Neni, this seems like the beginning of the life they dream of. They can save for a decent home and for Neni’s college fees. But first Jende needs to resolve his status as an illegal immigrant.

Behold the Dreamers vividly brings Jende and Neni’s worlds to life. Although most of the story takes place in the US, we get a strong sense of their life in Cameroon through their thoughts and their Cameroonian friends. We see New York through their eyes. Neni, in particular, loves the freedom and the new experiences it brings her, and has a wide circle of friends. It is only later that the different perceptions of the couple come to the fore.

The author has avoided the obvious clichés. The couple are not well off but nor are they destitute. Jende’s boss and his family are not archetypal evil capitalists. Jende is claiming refugee status even though he is not a real refugee. All these things mean that when challenging times come, there is no easy and obvious moral position for the reader to take.

Behold the Dreamers doesn’t always deliver in plot terms. It sets up a lot of things which aren’t paid off. They just happen, then something else happens. This normally bugs me in a novel (yes I know that’s how it is in real life) but here somehow it didn’t. I was enjoying the story and the characters so much I was happy to go along.

I loved the energy and humour of Behold the Dreamers and raced through it, while also wanting it not to end.

I received a copy of Behold the Dreamers from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Behold the Dreamers on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For a different take on the immigrant experience, see my review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

pachinkoPachinko is a family saga and a novel about the experience of the outsider. Sunja is the daughter of Hoonie, her much-loved father who died young. Hoonie was a disabled man, which in her coastal village in Korea, means she carries a stigma and may never marry. When she becomes pregnant by a Korean from Japan, a married man, it seems she will be outcast.

Then a Korean Christian pastor comes to the family’s boarding house. Their kindness to him during an extended illness and his faith lead him to make Sunja an offer – he will marry her and bring up the child as his own if she will come to Japan with him. He is moving there to escape the poverty brought by Japanese colonialism.

His hopes for an easier life in Japan prove naïve. Sunja and her husband live with her brother and sister-in-law, Kyunghee. The two women become close. Kyunghee accepts Sunja and her pregnancy, and her charm and delicacy and Sunja’s strength and perseverance complement each other in the trials that lie ahead. Life in the Korean ghetto of Osaka is difficult but together the women survive poverty, war, repression and loss.

Sunja’s sons face different challenges. Noa and Mozasu, are both born in Japan, but they are not citizens. They are subjected to prejudice and their ambiguous status means they are never secure. But while Mozasu reacts with defiance, Noa tries ever harder to assimilate, to become more Japanese. He values Japanese ideas, culture, even the language, over Korean. His struggle is depicted with compassion and we see the compromises made by the Korean characters – and the Japanese who are close to them.

It has resonance today, when we see people from minorities taking leading roles in anti-immigrant parties or governments. This subtle depiction of Noa provides some insight into why they make what seems like an incomprehensible choice.

Another way the characters insulate themselves from prejudice is through wealth. Money doesn’t buy acceptance, but it does buy power, within certain constraints. For Sunja and her family, the support of a wealthy patron also has its price.

The writing in Pachinko is beautiful. The author creates vivid characters and evokes place from a few brushstrokes – whether it’s the remote beauty of the beach near Sunja’s village in Korea, or the frenetic desperation of the pachinko parlours (gambling arcades) of Osaka. The narration is understated, even at times of great drama, and this quiet voice somehow heightens the emotion.

Pachinko is the story of a family and survival in tough circumstances. At its heart is the strength and resourcefulness of women.

I received a copy of Pachinko from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Pachinko on Goodreads

Reading the EU – some recommendations for the #EU27Project

Last week I wrote about the #EU27Project and some books by EU authors which I am looking forward to reading. This week I thought I’d recommend some books I’ve enjoyed by EU authors. A link in italics takes you to my review, in plain text to the book’s Goodreads page.

the-green-roadIrish fiction is strongly represented in my recent reading, including three different takes on the aftermath of the economic crisis. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney is about a young man growing up in Cork’s gang culture, Anne Enright’s The Green Road is a contemporary take on the matriarchal family saga and The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan has an intriguing narrative structure – each chapter is narrated by a different character.

Portuguese author Jose Saramago’s Blindness is an allegory that defies easy answers. In a world afflicted by an epidemic of blindness, will good or evil prevail? Some people have found this hard going because of the lack of punctuation, particularly of dialogue. I listened to the audiobook which meant someone had done the hard work for me.

I’ve recently enjoyed a couple of books from countries where I know very little about the literature. In Craving by Dutch author Esther Gerritsen a woman with autism casually tells her adult daughter she is dying, with darkly comic consequences. The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol is a dark satire from the Czech Republic/Czechia about a former Nazi prison transformed into a tourist attraction. It asks difficult questions about what we should remember and how.

I am particularly interested in Spain and books in Spanish. I’ve read quite a few books by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. If I had to choose one, it would probably be The Club Dumas, because it’s a book about books – a mystery about a rare book dealer chasing a manuscript of The Three Musketeers, who becomes caught up in a Dumas-like adventure. I don’t read much poetry these days, but I love the Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca from Bloodaxe which has the originals and Merryn Williams’ English translations side by side. This is ideal if, like me, your Spanish is good but not fluent. You can tease out the layers of meaning from the English and enjoy the rhythm and sound of Lorca’s own words. (The Bloodaxe book is out of print but other translations are available.)

Before I thought about this post, I would have said I’ve read a lot about European countries, in fiction and non-fiction. But I’ve realised that much of it is by British or American authors, in particular in the Mediterranean countries. They give an outsider’s perspective (endless rhapsodising about cafés etc). This seems to be against the spirit of the #EU27Project which is an opportunity to see the world through European eyes (though I may write a separate post some time on books set in or about Spain).

south-from-granadaBut I’m going to include Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada, a fascinating account of life in a remote mountain village in the Alpujarra in the period between the end of World War One and the Spanish Civil War.

Brenan was a British writer who served in the army and was a friend of the Bloomsbury group. But he was born in Malta, to Anglo-Irish parents, lived much of his life in Spain, and died there. This gives him connections to at least three EU27 countries.

His biography sums up the complexity of defining identity through nationality. Many people in the EU live on one side of a border and work on the other, or have connections to another country through migration or family, or just travel between countries at the weekend to socialise or shop. Let’s hope that openness and freedom isn’t lost.

Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos

life-in-a-fishbowlYA is a genre that has largely passed me by but I liked the premise of Life in a Fishbowl and thought I’d take a look. I’m glad I did.

Jared Stone, an Oregon state senator, is working on an assisted dying bill when he discovers he has a terminal brain tumour (glioblastoma multiforme). He doesn’t immediately tell his family, but he considers the financial implications of his death and decides, for their sake, to auction what remains of his life on eBay.

The novel follows the impact of events on his family – in particular his sensitive, lonely fifteen-year-old daughter Jackie (whose response contrasts with her pretty, popular younger sister Megan) and four people who make a bid for Jared’s life, for very different reasons.

Life in a Fishbowl succeeds in treading a very difficult line – it is full of absurdist humour but it also has compassion and doesn’t shrink from difficult issues such as bereavement and assisted dying.

It takes in a lot of zeitgeisty themes – reality TV, computer games, PR, as well as perennial topics such as the torment of not being popular at school. As you’d expect, Jackie is the focus of the novel (presumably because sensitive, lonely girls read more books than pretty, popular ones) but we get the perspectives of all the family.

Even the tumour, ‘Glio’, is anthropomorphised. I thought at first this might be too cute, but it means the author can show Jared’s memories as Glio devours them, and gives us Jared’s thoughts at a time when he cannot articulate them.

Life in a Fishbowl shines a satirical light on contemporary culture but also has great warmth. It is funny, engaging and full of life.

I received a copy of Life in a Fishbowl from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Life in a Fishbowl on Goodreads