Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Posted April 6, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Magical Realism / 0 Comments

Exit West by Mohsin HamidTitle: Exit West (Goodreads)
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Published: Hamish Hamilton, 2017
Pages: 240
Genres: Magical Realism
My Copy: Hardcover

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Every so often a book comes along that gets you thinking about an important social issue in a whole new light. These are the books I actively seek out, I am always looking for literature that is going to challenge my thinking or even teach me something new. Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West was a recent example of a book doing this with the topic of refugees. This is such an important issue and Hamid got me thinking about it in a different way with the simple introduction of magical doors.

The premise of Exit West is straightforward following the budding relationship between Saeed and Nadia in an unnamed country. As the novel tracks their developing relationship, it soon becomes apparent that they will need to escape. As the city they grew up in becomes increasingly unsafe, they are soon planning to leave everything behind. Through a door and into another country.

While the concept of these doors might be inspired by Nanina, Mohsin Hamid has stated he used this idea as a way to not get bogged down with the refugee journey. He wanted to explore the story as the events that lead these characters to flee and how it felt to be a refugee in Western culture. While I understand his reasoning, the idea seemed to work differently for me as the reader. The magical journey to another country gave off this idea that Western media do not care about the journey they only care about asylum seekers in their country. It worked to symbolise that missing piece that is often left out of the news when reporting on the refugee crisis.

In an interview with the author, he said the doors also where a symbol of globalisation. In today’s world we are able to talk to someone on the other side of the world face to face with video calling programs like Skype. The world seems smaller thanks to the advances of technology and while the idea of walking through a door into another country sound wonderful, it works as a motif for the complex issue of border control. Some doors are heavily guarded and other doors, like the one to their home country, are left accessible as if to invite them to ‘go back to where they came from’.

What I think Mohsin Hamid did really well in this novel was use the character focus to challenge the perceptions people might have of the refugee stereotype. Nadia wore an all concealing black robe in public not for religious reasons but to make her feel safe. Nadia is not religious and lives alone, she had to lie and said she was a widow to get her apartment. Nadia’s story is one of protecting herself from judgement while trying to explore her own sexuality. She longs for the freedom and individuality of the Western world. While Saeed is not overly religious he is the one that wants to wait to they are married. When fleeing the country he wishes to be part of the community of fellow countrymen, he does not want to give up on his traditions.

The two different points of view allows the reader to explore the idea of refugees from their perspective. Rather than focusing on the journey and the conflict with the Western world. Exit West focuses on their personal identity, as the characters try to understand their place in the world. For Nadia this is a chance for a new beginning, to reinvent herself but for Saeed this is the story of missing what he left, the nostalgic idea he had of his homeland.

Mohsin Hamid intentionally left the country and city unnamed because this could be the story of anyone. He did model it after a city in Pakistan but worried that mentioning any names might have been viewed as a political statement rather than the story he wanted to tell. I am so glad that I picked up Exit West and I know I will be dipping into more of Hamid’s works. This novel was so accessible, I feel like everyone should pick it up, in the hopes that it will get more people thinking about refugees.

The Story of My Purity by Francesco Pacifico

Posted October 10, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

The Story of My Purity by Francesco PacificoTitle: The Story of My Purity (Goodreads)
Author: Francesco Pacifico
Translator: Stephen Twilley
Published: Hamish Hamilton, 2010
Pages: 293
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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Thirty year old Piero Rosini wants to live a life of purity, wholly dedicated to God with a dream of become a modern day saint. Living in a sexless marriage, Piero spends his days working in a conservative Catholic publishing house. Although this publishing house was not conservative enough; they plan to publish a book that makes the claim that Pope John Paul II was secretly Jewish. He plans to leave and start an ultraconservative publishing house, where he can have more control over the content being released. The Story of My Purity is a novel that explores religion in relationship to faith, freedom and purity.

Living life with the idea of becoming a modern day saint, trying to do everything right and be perfect really sets up the satirical nature of this novel. Saint Augustine of Hippo’s autobiographical book Confessions comes to mind when I think about the difference between Saints and people who try to live a sinless life. I found that this novel really dealt with the idea of spirituality and religion in an interesting way. There is an exploration with the idea of freedom and faith when it comes to organised religion (in this case the Catholic Church).

A little understanding of theology really helps understand The Story of My Purity and the humour behind it. Firstly, when it comes to the seven deadly sins; it is alright to feel envy, greed and so on. The Church’s teaching on the seven deadly sins, is that these are gateways that can lead to trouble, so we should be aware of these feelings and learn to understand them. Although, there have been a lot of misconceptions around the deadly sins, that have led to the concept of Catholic guilt.

For Piero Rosini, he never learned to manage his lust, he went to a priest for help and was told not to think about women. Piero really took this advice on board to the point that he was unable to get an erection to consummate his one marriage. His sexless marriage was a result of him constantly trying to not think about sex, or feel a sexual attraction to his own wife. Although it proves impossible to not have sexual thoughts, and Piero’s life of purity began to unravel with the help of an attraction to his sister-in-law and spam emails.

The satirical nature of this novel comes from the fact people do not understand what the Church says about sex. Pope John Paul II did 129 lectures on the Theology of the Body, going through the Churches views on sex and sexuality. These lectures are about understanding your body, your desires and attraction. The theology should never feel restrictive by religion, rather we should be free and it should correct people’s misassumptions on the Churches teaching. Although the author may not have written this as a satire and this was actually his thoughts on Catholicism.

Unfortunately The Story of My Purity was not a great book, I loved viewing the book as a satire and exploring the theology behind it. However it did take a direction that I did not enjoy and ended up falling on its face. I am fascinated by theology and I feel like this could have been a great novel. The predictability of the book was just too much of a stumbling block for me. I am curious on Francesco Pacifico thoughts on Catholicism; I viewed the book as satire and would hate to think of it as anything else. I have also done a video review on this novel, if you are curious; although I think I talk about all the same ideas.

The Unloved by Deborah Levy

Posted November 22, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

The Unloved by Deborah LevyTitle: The Unloved (Goodreads)
Author: Deborah Levy
Published: Hamish Hamilton, 1995
Pages: 208
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Due to the success of Swimming Home getting a Man Booker shortlisting in 2012, Deborah Levy’s 1995 novel The Unloved was edited and republished earlier this year. I have been a fan of Levy since discovering Swimming Home thanks to the Man Booker and I admit I was a little slack getting to her backlist. I read her collection of short stories last year and finally returned to another novel with The Unloved.

The Unloved tells the story of a group of self-indulgent European tourists who decide to celebrate Christmas in a remote French château. However during their stay one of them is brutally murdered and the unloved child Tatiana knows who did it. The subsequent investigation into this death turns more into an examination of love, desire and rage. This is a shocking and exciting novel, full of characters you can’t help but suspect of murder.

There is something strangely familiar with this novel; while it had a different plot to Swimming Home, the themes felt very much alike. Both tell a psychological story of love and desire that is full of Freudian ideas. There is a philosophical feel about these novels as Levy forces the reader to think about life and death in an interesting way. In The Unloved it becomes less about the murder, and focuses more about a psychoanalytical look at the rest of the people in the French château.

The writing within The Unloved may not be as beautiful as Swimming Home but it was still wonderful. There is a strong sense of symbolism flowing through out the narrative and from time to time wonderfully elegant writing. I am not trying to dismiss this novel at all; it has its moments and I admire Levy’s wry style.

I feel the book explored the same themes as Swimming Home, just not as refined. It is weird to judge a book by its themes, Deborah Levy has a keen interest on the topic and passionate about exploring it. The Unloved is worth checking out; the plot and characters are all magnificent. I just would have preferred if the book explored these themes from a different perspective.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Posted October 17, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Dystopia / 0 Comments

The Circle by Dave EggersTitle: The Circle (Goodreads)
Author: Dave Eggers
Published: Hamish Hamilton, 2013
Pages: 491
Genres: Dystopia
My Copy: Library Book

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If Facebook and Google were to get married, The Circle would be their direct result of their procreation. The Circle takes the social aspects (and lack of privacy) of Facebook and combines it with the innovation of Google to create a dominant social media platform. Their success was a result of TruYou, a tool that requires people to use their real identity to sign up (including their social security number making it impossible for anyone outside of the US to sign up), many web based companies jumped on board with this innovation, wanting direct access to real data. The effect of TruYou saw the end of internet trolling, identity theft and so much more.

Mae Holland is a woman in her early 20’s that has just landed a job with the Circle thanks to her friend Annie. While she has to start in Customer Experience, a place well below her qualifications the idea of working at the Circle was enough for her. The offices (or campus) of the Circle mimic that of Google, and Mae founds that this is the place to work; everyone is friendly and she will be on the fast track to a promotion in no time. However the Circle; while it demands transparency (hiding nothing from the public) in everything they do, their attempt to close the circle (their mission statement) will result in complete control over everything. Secrets Are Lies, Privacy Is Theft.

Let’s face it, Dave Eggers’ The Circle is less of a social satire and more a horrifying prophecy of the direction social media is going. They days where people can be a curator of their lives online are fast ending and every part of our lives will be accessible. This may have some positive effects in life but when one company or person has too much power, human rights tend to take a back seat. Do people see this? Are they aware just how much of their information is being shared or sold? The Circle forces the readers to ask these questions and take a deeper look what is happening online.

The Circle serves more as a motif; even a homage to Dante if you will. Dave Eggers is the Virgil of this story and both Mae and the readers travel deeper into the circles of hell. Mae learns just much of a tyrant the Circle is, while the reader has a look at social media. While I see this as a homage to Inferno, this totalitarian nightmare is obviously influenced by Nineteen Eighty-Four (as most dystopian novel are) more than anything else. Eggers, like Orwell wants to look at society and see the direction we are heading.

The Circle is headed by the “Three Wise Men” each of them with their own ideas for the direction of the company. These three men seem to be modelled after real life innovators; Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Julian Assange. I’m not going to go into the effects three big personalities would have on a company, but I’m sure you can imagine. I’m not going to go too much further into the plot or themes but with a company slogan like “All that happens must be known”, I probably don’t need to spell it out.

This is my first Dave Eggers novel and I’ve often heard that this is one of his weaker novels, however I think this was a perfect place to start for me. I found this dystopian satire to be directly influenced by the works of Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. I have no idea what Eggers other novels are like but I’m convinced to read more; even if they are not social satires. I loved how he incorporated pop-culture into the novel but I worry that this will mean it won’t age well, so you might want to pick this one up soon.

I have been reading novels that critique society but the majority have been classics, so it is nice to step into a modern day setting and see how the age of high-tech innovation and technoconsumerism could be harmful. I see some mixed reactions to this novel and I can understand that, my only hope is that people are understanding satire and are not marking it down for that. Of course I am a big fan of satire and will always be preaching about its value within literature. I found The Circle to be a very impressive novel and it did a great job at critiquing society, I hope people will give it a chance but I suspect this book will be a popular pick. I would like to do this one as part of a book club.

NW by Zadie Smith

Posted December 6, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 8 Comments

NW by Zadie SmithTitle: NW (Goodreads)
Author: Zadie Smith
Published: Hamish Hamilton, 2013
Pages: 296
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Living in the Caldwell housing estate found in North West London, the only plan was to get out and go somewhere else. Thirty years later, Caldwell kids have all moved on with their varying degrees of success. Living streets apart, their worlds collide, showing them that the people they once were and are now, can suddenly unravel.

NW has been labelled as a tragicomedy, which means the author will try to cut overly dramatic and tragic lives will a bit of humour and possibly a happy ending. I felt like this revealed too much about the novel; I always expected everything to turn out well for these four Londoners.  The term recherché postmodernism (or hysterical realism) was coined by literary critic James Wood to describe this type of contemporary fiction, in particular the works of Zadie Smith. Has states, this is “a literary genre typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterisation and careful, detailed investigations of real specific social phenomena.”

This gives us a sense of what to expect in a Zadie Smith novel “[and] turn fiction into social theory” (James Wood, 2000). I have to admit that this is the first of Smith’s novels that I read and picked this as my first simply because it was the first time I heard of her and it was available at my local library. In hindsight, maybe starting with White Teeth might have been a better choice but at least I know I’ve experienced Smith’s style without going to her most celebrated novel.

This felt like an experimental novel that had a lot to offer and has some interesting insights into a low social economical part of London. It tried to analyse the social progress of the four main protagonists as they try to be successful in life. Not the easiest book to read while I was struggling to remain focused and climb out of a slump. There are a lot of ideas jammed into a novel full of ever changing styles; yet NW remained lyrical and poetic through it all.

I wish I had better focus through this book, I feel like there was a lot I missed out, what I did get from the book was enjoyable. It is a weird experience enjoying a book but not feeling like reading at the same time. I think it does affect my opinion of NW but I’m trying hard to avoid letting personal opinions cloud my judgment on great writing. Sure, reviewing and enjoyment of a book are based on person opinions but I feel that I need to remove emotions and read more critically. NW was interesting and I hope to read more Zadie Smith in the future.