Moshin Hamid – Exit West

This is a humanising story about immigration and the effect it has on people – a brilliantly written book that feels so right for the times.

It focuses on two young people in an unnamed but presumably Middle Eastern city – Nadia and Saeed. Nadia’s a bit of a rebel, riding a motorbike, though she maintains safety by wearing a long black robe. Saeed is not so rebellious but is an honest man, interested in girls and a little weed like most his age.

They get together slowly, and then quickly, before their city begins to resemble a war zone as militants attack and the government defends. They see less of each other and Saeed’s Mum is killed in a bombing.

Then they hear about doors popping up all over the city, ones that lead to other towns and cities. First they travel to Mykonos in Greece, then London, then San Francisco. We see the stress and isolation and hardship takes its toll on their relationship, in time growing irritable with one another and ultimately apart.

The first thing that’s striking about the book is its style – short, yes, but importantly very readable and the author all-knowing. It’s written in this style, arguably, in order to present their experiences as objective in some way, or at least to be dispassionate in the telling.

Also striking is the richness of the two main characters, their depth. At no point are they stereotypes but instead are a complex mix of fun, and sadness, and music, and rebellion, and piety, and fun. Unlike say, Rose Tremain, whose plot and main character in The Road Home are gripping but follow the familiar story of the East European migrant, Hamid’s characters are of their own – as of course all migrants, all people, are.

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Rose Tremain – The Road Home

This is a solid story that gets into the mind and under the skin of a migrant in search of work and hope.

It tells the story of Lev, a father and widow from Eastern Europe who travels to the UK in search of work, the lumberyard in his home town of Auror having closed down.

The novel follows Lev’s arrival in London, his search for work which he finds in kitchens through a mix of good luck – Lydia, who he travels over with on the bus is well-connected – and hard work – and his relationships with his landlord and friend Chrisy, and girlfriend for a while, Sophie. Eventually he develops cooking skills and raises enough money to go back home, where can help his family and friend Rhudi.

There’s an element of stereotype about the story though – the hardworking immigrant, slightly aggressive at times, doing all he can to help people back home.

But psychologically, emotionally, this is a great read. Lev is a strong character and Tremain really gets under his skin – his desires, his sadness for his wife, the difficulties of being foreign, his kindness, his aggressive streak – all of it. It’s the richness, the detail, that elevates the story and makes it a compelling read.

Partly this book seems to be humanising or subjectifying the migrant experience, but it’s also much more personal – about loss and memory. Perhaps Lev has to leave what he’s familiar with in order to get over the loss of his wife, Marina, and it’s only when he gets back to Auror and Baryn that he can move on with his life?

Steve Tolz – Quicksand

This is an incredible piece of writing brilliance and a wise and often hilarious read.

Liam’s best friend is Aldo Benjamin, a force of nature who has more life packed into his thirty or so years than whole generations of people at a time.

Liam, a wanna-be writer, needs a subject and so Aldo becomes it, with Liam telling Aldo’s story – the failed businesses, time in prison, his drinking, his lost child, accusations of rape, his relationship with lover and wife Stella, his crippling disabilities and illnesses, and his eventual martyrdom and death on a rock as he begins to and eventually gives up setting up a new religion.

There’s no simple plot; rather snapshots of Aldo’s incredible life, told with such energy and a kind of joyful cynicism, if that’s possible.

What’s great about Aldo is he is constantly speaking unlikely or oxymoronic truths about life that read like aphorisms. In fact, knowing that Tolz’s last book was quite philosophical, it was easy at times to see Aldo like a twenty first century entrepreneurial, nihilistic Nietzsche, one raised on reality TV and art and poverty.

Ali Smith – Winter

Like so much of Ali Smith’s books, Winter is a light, joyful and highly readable exploration of the reality of ideas, in this case the complexities of truth.

It centres on Art and his mother Sophie and Aunt, Iris. Art’s relationship with his girlfriend Charlotte has broken down, and she is sending fake tweets from his account (he is a known nature writer). He was going to take Charlotte home to meet his Mum – an elderly and previously successful no-nonsense business woman – for Christmas. Wanting to take someone he pays Lux, who he meets at a bus stop, to pretend to be Charlotte.

They visit, and finding Sophie unwell – she has being seeing a disembodied head floating around her and is losing her health – Lux calls for Iris, her sister. Iris and Sophie haven’t spoken for 20 years, in part because Iris was an antinuclear activist and idealist, Sophie a realist.

Thrown together thus, all manner of truths begin to be nudged out, primarily by Lux who is open, honest and warm. She gives up the pretence of being Charlotte (in a brilliant scene) and gradually the family – Art, Sophie and Iris – tease through their relationships.

As much as anything this is a book about truth – what it is, what hides it. Art isn’t bothered about Charlotte stealing his online identity because the one he portrays is equally false. The truth of Iris and Sophie’s history, relationships and lives is talked about too, but what happened is not always clear – they have different versions.

And the role of Lux is intriguing – she is the most likeable character and she brings together the three family members; without her they wouldn’t have been able to talk so well. And they all relate to her – in part because she’s frank and open, but also because they don’t know her like they know one another: people are complex and her honest appearance is just the first layer, she is being truthful and honest as far as we know, but like an onion there will be more inside as you get to know her.

Elmet – Fiona Mozley

Among the best books I’ve ever read, Elmet is a brilliant novel about land and the countryside, family and loyalty, poverty and class.

It’s narrated by Daniel, the brother of independent Cathy and their Dad, John. They live a lawless life in a wooden hut in Yorkshire, living off the land, foraging, and from what John – a giant and renowned fighter – can earn from staged fights organised by travellers and others for bets. They don’t attend school but get their education from a family friend, Vivian, who teaches them at her home in the nearby village.

All is good if a bit risky occasionally (and worse when John goes away), until John teams up with local workers and tenants to take on their landlord and employer, Mr Price. He is the muscle, his job to scare off the thugs who threaten people in the village who hold out against Price. It gradually seems to work – until one of Price’s sons is murdered and John is the main suspect. The kids are captured, and he seems to disappear, regardless of whether he’s the killer or not. We get fleeting flashes forward through the book from Daniel who is searching for his sister some years later, and the Dad’s whereabouts remain unknown, giving the whole thing some ambiguity.

It’s a great story, but even more than than that it is the setting that makes it. The brilliant and accurate descriptions of the countryside, both beautiful and gritty. And the way it’s portrayed in a way so often ignored by nature writers: unruly, large, wild; full of people with low pay jobs struggling to earn a living; a place where life is difficult and unsanitised for many.

There’s also a great little bit where Daniel is talking about. Vivian’s house and realises that whereas Cathy likes the outdoors, the freedom of the wild, he likes the comforts of inside: cushions, materials, the warmth. It’s a great little insight; one of so many.

There’s so much to say about this book… but I’ll leave it there.

Metroland – Julian Barnes

A well written story and thoughtful portrayal of how radicalism both dissipates and becomes part of us as we age.

It’s narrated by Chris, and is broken into three sections.

The first part is when Chris and his best friend Toni were art loving cynical and pretentious teenagers in suburbia, often visiting London or laughing at their school friends and neighbours at the end of the Metropolitan line (hence the book’s title).

Second is when Chris is in Paris, in 1968, discovering love and honesty with a French girl, his first love. He misses the political upheaval but nevertheless experiences the same kind of changes going on around him.

Third is when Chris is in his early 30s having settled down with a family – a wife and small child – and now living back in Metroland. His life is conventional, but he and his wife (who he met while in France) still combine elements of bohemia with their suburbia. The change is brought into contrast when Chris meets up with Toni who has retained more of his arty cynicism, and sees Chris as having mellowed into normalness.

Metroland is brilliantly written, with great sentences building on one another throughout. And it’s a thoughtful reflection on what happens as you age, on how youthful radicalism is combined into daily life as you mature. 

“That day I carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so I would not lose any of it.”

Miranda July, in No one belongs here more than you

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”

Albert Camus’s great opening to The Outsider 

Books I’ll never write #1: the role of the coffee shop in US fiction

The diner or coffee shop is a familiar venue with big significance in much contemporary American fiction. So here’s a book I’d like to write but never will: one looking at the reasons why diners play such a big role and what they are used to represent.

You could put a particular focus on American crime fiction, where the coffee shop is well used by the likes of George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Bloc and the like, but they crop up in the likes of Paul Auster or Richard Ford too.

What role does the diner play?

From a plot point of view, the diner is a way for the protagonist to be alone in their thoughts, but also run into other people through which the plot can easily develop. But the diner is less about plot and more about themes.

First, these coffee places often represent the diversity of real-life America, where all kinds of people rub shoulders, no matter what colour or class. In Pelecanos’s Washington Quartet, in particular, it’s about a Greek diner run by Nick Stefanos and Costa, but it’s a multicultural place frequented by Greeks, Italians and African Americans. 

Second, they function as a public-private space: somewhere where everyone can feasibly go, where it’s independent, but in a typically American fashion it’s a private business. There’s a curious – perhaps curiously American – mix of individualism and community.

Third, it is often used to portray a kind of authentic working class America, where people are taking a break from hard work at all hours. Though in principle it could be men and women, in reality it’s often a very male and masculine environment, with women often just working in the place not a protagonist using it. In Stefanos’s diner the people are united by coffee, beer and food, but also by boxing and sports.

I guess that the cafe is used in different ways internationally: as a place of discussion in French literature, for example, or a site of freedom in Naguib Mafouz’s Egypt, which might make a nice point of contrast.

What would I call this book, that I’ll never write? Maybe The coffee spot: the role of the diner in contemporary American fiction.

The Skating Rink – Roberto Bolano

In Bolano’s characteristically terse prose this is a great short novel about love, murder and the transience of an individual’s life.

Told from the perspective of three different people, it gradually unravels a story in which a senior but pompous bureaucrat builds an ice rink in an abandoned building with public money for Nuria, a beautiful skater he’s besotted with; a subterfuge that works until a dead body is discovered and the scandal is exposed.

We get the story from the bureaucrat’s perspective (Enric Rosquelles), that of a local entrepreneur (Remo Moran) who has a brief relationship with Nuria and whose ex-wife Lola worked with the bureaucrat, and Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet living in a campsite in the town who knows Moran, the murder victim, and strikes up a relationship with the victim’s friend.

The ins and outs of the murder are secondary. Mostly the book is focused on the people and relationships around ice rink, the campsite and the town, known only as Z.

What comes across powerfully in the book is the randomness and transience of life. Stuff just happens. From an apparently successful political adviser, Enric finds himself stealing public money, in prison and then with a new life. Gaspar drifts to the campsite, meets countless other people who’s lives are temporarily on hold, like the murder victim, and rarely seems to have a clear sense of what’s happening around him. 

This becomes clear in part through the characters and their perspective, but more than anything it is Bolano’s style of writing, where this happens and then that and then that, a sequence of random or unexplained events that creates an atmosphere of existence’s purposelessness.   

The Sellout – Paul Beatty

I don’t even know where to begin with this book. It’s incredible and amusing and confusing in equal measure.

The narrator (unnamed) is brought up by his sociologist father as a social / psychological experiment to see what happens when a child is constantly confronted with being black and poor in modern America. He is traumatised and abused, but hilariously and ridiculously so.

The book (kind of) follows the narrator in his quest to re-establish a black ghetto in LA – Dickens – that has been, as far as he thinks, erased from the map. In the process he begins to re-introduce racial segregation and gets himself a volunteer slave (Hominy). It’s quite hard to know what’s going on most of the way through the book, but the segregation appears to be having a positive effect on buses, at schools, in the streets, until the narrator gets caught and ends up at the Supreme Court accused of offences against the constitution. The narrator has a long-term relationship with bus driver Marpessa, who loves and in infuriated by his crazy schemes.

What’s most striking about the book, quite apart from the originality, is its brilliantly scathing take on race relations and inequality in modern America. The narrator comes down hard and offensively on everyone; the government and police of course, but absolutely everyone, from those unaware of their white privilege to black intellectuals, who are brought to life in the book through the character of Cheshire Foy.

“reading Crime and Punishment changed him, Crime and Punishment was the thunderbolt that crashed down from heaven and cracked him into a hundred pieces, and by the time he put himself together again, Ferguson was no longer in doubt about the future, for if this was what a book could be, if this was what a novel could do to a person’s heart and mind and innermost feelings about the world, then writing novels was surely the best thing a person could do in life, for Dostoyevsky had taught him that made-up stories could go far beyond mere fun and diversion, they could turn you inside out and take off the top of your head, they could scald you and freeze you and strip you naked and thrust you into the blasting winds of the universe, and from that day forward, after flailing about for his entire boyhood, lost in an ever-thickening miasma of bewilderment, Ferguson finally knew where he was going, or at least knew where he wanted to go.”

Paul Auster, 4321

4321 – Paul Auster 

A colossal exploration of the different paths a person’s life might take, and the role personal circumstance and political events play in shaping that.

4321 is a massive novel, in many ways. Massive in its ambition, telling four different versions of the main character, Ferguson’s, life, which takes different courses depending on circumstances. Massive in its scope, covering Ferguson’s place within and perceptions of major events in the 50s and 60s, like Kennedy, Vietnam and race riots. And massive in its size, at over 1,000 pages.

Ferguson is the son of Rose, who he is close to in all the versions of his life, and his entrepreneurial Dad who owns a TV and electrical goods store. And in a way the direction of his life is determined by their fates, whether they are successful, stay together or even die. Despite the epic political context it’s the minutiae of personal relationships that determines Ferguson’s lives far more than anything else. 

In the end we see one Ferguson going to Princeton, another to Columbia, another moving to Paris and another *spoiler ahead* dying early. Their lives are different. But interestingly not radically so. All of them are wanna-be writers. All combine sport with writing. All have a close relationship with Amy, but in one she’s a girlfriend, another a cousin. 

It’s interesting in this respect that what Auster (so often seen as a postmodern writer) is saying is that there are core traits to Ferguson’s personality that circumstances might shape but will always be there is some way or other.

What 4321 does brilliantly is combine historical sweep with detailed intimacy. The book covers some major events and periods, but because each story is focused on Ferguson and his place within it, we circle around him, gradually honing in on his views, feelings, emotions, strengths and weaknesses, making it a very full and powerful character study. 

Despite being written by Auster now rather than four deviates ago, 4321 really brings to life the experience of being a teenager and then young man, especially in a time of major social change. Ferguson is exploring his sexuality – in one life he’s interested in men, in another not all – and trying to understand his commitments to politics and activism rather than to art or sport.

And despite its length, the book is just so well written too. It has all the trademark characteristics of Auster (see this in-depth review of his New York Trilogy). But the style is different, with long sentences, sometimes up to a page long, exploring things in depth from different angles – just like the book. It’s light on dialogue and big on analysing inner thoughts and external circumstances. 

“One of the odd things about himself, Ferguson had discovered, was that there seemed to be several of him, that he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves, and each time he was with a different person, he himself was different as well.”

Paul Auster (channeling Deleuze and Guattari) in 4321

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

This is an incredible book: well plotted, rich, wise and gripping.

It’s the story of the first three or four decades of the life of the unnamed narrator, a black girl from Willesden Green, and her relationship with close childhood friend Tracey, her Mum and the people she meets in her job as a personal assistant to Aimee, a Madonna style superstar.

Both the narrator and Tracey adore dance as young girls and are inseparable, but have very different lives as they grow up. Tracey tries to become a dancer, getting bit-parts in shows but never really making it, ending up a bitter single Mum with four kids and no money. The narrator doesn’t follow her dancing dream, goes to university and ends up working as a personal assistant to Aimee, flying around the world to make Aimee’s life easier and, in particular in the book, to an unnamed country in Africa where Aimee is paying for a new school to be built, Bono philanthropy-style.

Apart from the great writing and characters, to whom there is real depth and complexity, the book explores some strong and clear themes:

Class. Both Tracey and the narrator grow up on the same estate, but one of them stays there and the other leaves. Are they still the same class, of different? Tracey certainly thinks the narrator has changed and got posh. The narrator’s Mum saw Tracey’s family as a different class in the first place. Maybe they were never the same, or class is not the only determinant of life chances.

Upbringing. Whereas Tracey’s Dad was in prison and often missing, the narrator’s Mum is an aspiring intellectual and politician. Not always focused on her daughter, she inculcated a sense of interest and broad aspiration in the narrator that Tracey never had. Hence she went to university while Tracey stayed in Willesden.

Race. the narrator and her family are black, as is Tracey, which is a source of discrimination in her younger years. When she spends time in Africa with Aimee, though, the whole question of race, belonging, nationality and ancestry becomes pertinent. The narrator feels English and is perceived as such, and her experiences there make her question her identity in new ways.

Ambition. There’s a nice contrast between Tracey and the narrator. Encouraged by her Mum, Tracey follows her dream of being a dancer, but ultimately fails and has nothing to fall back on. The narrator doesn’t follow her dream but instead gets a broader education and drifts a bit, leading to more success. Contrasted with the super ambitious and successful Aimee, both are an example of what most people will do.

Early adulthood. What the book does really well, I think, is capture the lack of awareness of self and others people often have in early adult years. The narrator drifts through university without really making the most of it, stumbles across a job with Aimee and fails to notice how ill her Mum is.

The Lola Quartet – Emily St John Mandel

This is as gripping as any crime fiction I’ve read but with such powerful themes of innocence undone and lives unravelling, it’s so much more.

Gavin, Jack, Sasha and Daniel play in a jazz quartet at their Florida high school, and the story follows the fallout after they finish and go their separate ways, revisiting them ten years later. The charismatic and wayward Anna is at the heart of it, after she leaves Florida amid rumours of being pregnant and then steals $120,000 from a drug dealer and goes into hiding. 

Daniel helps in the first place, but leaves her to it after Anna meets a musician who helps her escape and get into hiding. Ten years later Daniel, now an overweight cop with a string of failed marriages behind him, helps when they try to deal with the pursuing dealer once and for all.

Gavin is the main character, a journalist in New York who unravels when he realises that his girlfriend Anna was pregnant ten years earlier and he’d somehow ignored the signs in a bid to move away from Florida and on with his life. A decade later he is keen to know the truth.

Jack was a fine musician but he realised early at music college that he ‘didn’t have the music’ and spiralled into a sad dependence on anti-depressants.

Sasha is the strongest character. She has never left Florida, developed a gambling addiction and works nights in a diner. There’s a great scene later in the book when she tries to win some money playing poker at the casino, with her sponsor on-hand to pull her out when she needs it.

The way the book weaves the lives of these rich characters is fantastic, and just as good is the atmosphere of jazz joints, all night diners, drug dealers, casinos and the sad desperation of a group of people who’s lives have not turned out at all as planned.

There’s such a strong theme, too, of small mistakes having big consequences: Anna getting pregnant, Daniel wanting the baby to be his, Anna stealing the money, Sasha falling into gambling, Jack inadvertently telling where Anna was, Gavin seeing a photo of Anna’s daughter….

A fine, fine book.

O City of Broken Dreams – John Cheever

This is a frenetic short story about the hope and hopelessness of the American Dream.

Written in 1948, it’s the story of Evarts and Alice Molloy who withdraw all their savings to travel to New York after meeting a Broadway producer who expresses an interest in Evarts’ play and says he can make it happen for them. They check into a down-at-heel hotel and begin a frantic series of meetings across New York, ultimately burning their bridges with the original producer and hooking up with another that they meet through the hotel bellboy, Bitsie, and finishing up deciding to move on to LA where they think there might be more hope for them. 

What this superb story captures is the American Dream. On the one hand is the hope – that all Evarts needs to do is write the play and meet the right people and he can make it, and become a star playwright. On the other is the tragedy – they are clearly chasing a most likely hopeless dream of success, and so is everyone else. The producers and agents are just as unrealistic as Evarts, but are cut-throat too, lying to one another and threatening law suits to make things happen. By the end of the story Evarts and Alice are poorer, severed from their old home and unsure of their future, yet they have a naive hope which will drive them on until they make it or are destitute.

The writing is brilliant, a sense of urgency and looming disaster is evident from the first few lines – though you never really know how much Evarts and Alice might lose. And there are excellent, heartbreaking scenes, like the one where Alice sings at a party of producers and actors. They listen intently, enjoying the performance, but then she ends with a fake collapse that had been a key part of the routine in their rural home but appears ridiculous and results in hilarity in suave New York.

A great, sad story.