Although the stories are difficult to read, each leaves the reader with an understanding and some sympathy for the characters’ circumstances, and possibly a sense of shadenfraude.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Hamid focuses on the lives of two immigrants, Saeed and Nadia, whose country is bombarded by war and terror. Saeed, the son of a university professor, works at an ad agency and lives with his family. Nadia lives alone, rides a motorcycle, and wears a full black robe, not for religious deference but to discourage men’s interest in her. Opposites attract; they meet in a college class on product branding and fall in love.
As the city becomes overrun with refugees and the terror escalates, many yearn to escape. Hamid graphically documents what is it like to live in a war zone and the desperate lives of those who are collateral damage.
The novel veers into magical realism when Hamid creates mysterious doors opening to other places. Unlike the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicle of Narnia, these portals lead to actual places – in this case, first to the island of Mykonos, then to the outskirts of London, and finally to San Francisco. As Saeed and Nadia escape through each set of doors, they find themselves among other refugees and subsist poorly. Their lives are difficult, facing constant fear and roadblocks. Hamid electrifies the refugee crisis as he melds the political and personal, and disconcertedly jumps between scenes of bombing and drones to starry skies and dreams of a future.
The novel ends with hope, but also emphasizes how experiences have affected the couple – even magical doors take a toll. The story is difficult to read, not just for the misery and struggle but also for its truthful timeliness.
Stream System by Gerald Murnane
When I read Mark Binelli’s interview of Gerald Murnane in the Sunday New York Times – Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? – my curiosity led me to Binelli’s recommendation for a place to start reading the author – his collection of short fiction, Stream System.
An obscure Australian writer, Murnane lives in a poor ramshackle space outside of Melbourne and would seem more eccentric than brilliant. He prides himself on writing only what he knows within his small sphere – no travel and little patience with people. His stories are set near Melbourne, are in part autobiographical, and focus on perceptions. The canon of his work is extensive and his writing reflects a strange simplicity reminiscent of Hemingway. The first story in his collection – “When the Mice Failed to Arrive” – jumps from introspection to problem-solving and left me not with a yearning for more but with a general unease. You can read it – here – and decide for yourself.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
McEwan’s stories are always compelling but with sad endings. Although I have read many of McEwan’s books (Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Sweet Tooth, Nutshell) I had not read this earlier work – The Child in Time. More for the actor Benedict Cumberbatch than for the story, I watched the PBS Masterpiece production.
The story shows Stephen, an author of children’s books, and his wife, as they deal with the kidnapping of their three-year-old daughter Kate. A sense of magic as well as despair pervades their grief as Stephen has glimpses of his daughter after her abduction. The ending offers a sense of hope but their overwhelming pain persists. The drama was compelling and worth seeing. The story will stay with me, but I doubt I will read the book – enough.