Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Hamid’s 2017 Man Booker Prize and Rathbones Folio 2018 shortlisted novel is difficult to categorise. At face value it is a classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl variant, a fable-style romance set in a contemporary Asian city that is not yet at war. On another level, it is about the refugee experience as their city becomes a war zone. But, it also has a single pure SF ingredient added to the mix that allows Hamid to do some clever things. It begins with boy meets girl though:
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe.
Later, once they have talked and had coffee, Saeed asks her why she wears the robe if she doesn’t pray. Her reply is prosaic: ‘So men don’t fuck with me.’ However, they fall in love, Nadia dumps her musician boyfriend. She smuggles Saeed up to her apartment by putting him a black robe, to escape the prying eyes of her landlord. The city begins to get more dangerous, Saeed asks her to move in with him and his father for protection. It is then that Hamid introduces his SF gimmick – for a gimmick it is:
Rumours had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all. Most people thought these rumours to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.
Eventually, when war comes to the city, and the doors have proven to be a true phenomenon, Saeed and Nadia decide to find one and escape. But Saeed’s father won’t go with them, he wants to remain, with the memories of his dead wife.
Much as with boats across the Mediterranean, unscrupulous villains have immediately moved in to control the doors and the price goes up the better the destination. Saeed and Nadia end up in Mykonos, a classic refugee destination, where they camp and try to plan what to do next. Nadia makes friends with a local girl and she shows them to another door – and they emerge in London, into a very different world, they squat, along with many other migrant families in a grand terrace in Kensington, but food and work are hard to come by. As migrants arrive, many locals leave, the nativists riot, everyone is on the move… Can love survive? Can they find a new home?
Transporting portals such as Hamid’s doors are a SF staple for settings where Star Trek style beaming down/up can’t be used (e.g. in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (esp part II), and Monsters Inc). Indeed, in Star Trek, the transporters were devised to cut down on production costs – an instantaneous way to swap locations, no shuttles needed. I guess this is one reason why Hamid uses them – apart from unsettling the reader and maintaining the fabular nature of the tale, road trips and risky boat voyages across the Med are not needed. It helps to keep his narrative directed on Saeed and Nadia’s fate at each destination rather than focusing on the journey. I found the style of writing in this novel was slightly detached, as if observing from a distance. I didn’t dislike the novel – Exit West made me think – and that’s always a good thing, but neither did I love this book quite as much as various prize judges have seemed to. (7.5/10)
Wabi-Sabi by Francesc Miralles
Translated from the Catalan by Julie Wark
Samuel is a university lecturer in Barcelona. His relationship with his girlfriend Gabriela is stagnating, and she suggests a break. Poor Samuel is at a loss, the routine they had built up together is shattered. Then one day, he receives an enigmatic postcard from Japan, and a girl asks for help identifying the language in a song. He asks his upstairs neighbour Titus, an elderly writer of philosophical self-help books, for advice. The wily Titus who is researching the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi which embraces imperfection for a book, suggests that Samuel should take a holiday, go to Kyoto and check out the postcard – and while he’s there to do some on the ground research for him on Wabi-Sabi. So, leaving his cat Mishima with Titus, Samuel sets off for Japan, searching for answers and enlightenment – and finds himself lured out of his cosy shell and having a bit of an adventure.
I didn’t realise this book was a sequel. In Love in Small Letters, Miralles tells the story of how Samuel gets Mishima and meets Titus. However, Wabi-Sabi stands up on its own merits perfectly – there was no need to read the former first, although I’d like to read it now. Wabi-Sabi was charming and Samuel is an easy protagonist to like, a little perplexed and awkward at times, an ordinary man full of the best intentions who needs to be jolted out of his comfort zone now and then. Miralles has a lightness of touch and good sense of humour, and this book never veers over into the sentimental or cute. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR. Francesc Miralles, Wabi-Sabi (Alma Books, 2016) paperback, 208 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)