Mesmerizing and Uncannily Prescient

I continue to fight through the half-read pile on my nightstand, but also had two library holds come in recently (one after several months). They and this month’s book club selection all had a similarity with a book club book from last fall I never finished: fictional – or at least unnamed – locations. I haven’t shared any book recs lately, so who am I to deny this random theme?

Exit West, by Moshin Ahmed.

Exit West was the Winner of the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and the Aspen Words Literary Prize, as well as being a finalist for the 2019 International Dublin Literary Award and Dayton Literary Peace Prize and landing on the New York Times Book Review Ten Best Books list. So, obviously, a lot of better book reviewers have said a lot of deeper things about this book. 

If you’re not familiar, this is a book, superficially, about a young couple who escape their war-torn city in a war-torn country that is unnamed but easily assumed to be Middle Eastern based on discussion of Nadia’s decision to wear covering garments, despite her independent nature and modern thinking on so many other subjects. The parallels to Syria and other locations are heartbreaking, reading about lives torn apart because of battles civilians have nothing to do with – how their range of freedom shrinks, physically and emotionally.

This book was recommended to me by a number of sites and people, and they all managed to leave out one very interesting plot device. I won’t spoil it for you, but will simply say that this is a moving story not just about immigration and the plight of refugees, but also about relationships – how they evolve, be they parental or romantic, and how we can find ourselves through chaos. And through all the chaos – hope. Beautifully done, and I’m so glad I finally finished it.

Those Who Knew: A Novel, by Idra Novey

My dear friend Charlie turned me on to this book in one of his reviews, and if I know anything, it’s to always trust a Charlie review. I was unable to get ahold of this book ’til recently, but in the meantime, read Ms. Novel’s first novel, Ways to Disappear, also a very worthy read.

Like Exit West,Those Who Knew is set in an unnamed location, this time on an island somewhere warm and south, and the people there are dealing with the aftermath of heavy political unrest. We meet a bookshop owner who was arrested more than once by the former government, and our protagonist, who spent a meaningful part of her youth helping with the up-risers who became the current leading party.

Also like Exit WestThose Who Knew is a chillingly realistic look at the world of politics and what happens to those who have to live with the battles of their “leaders”, but also about the evolution of relationships and ourselves and realizing the story we get is often richer than the one we wanted.

Besides similarity in theme, both Exit West and Those Who Knew are written by writers extraordinarily capable of painting rich pictures with their words. One of my favorite parts of this novel was an ongoing series of theatrical scenes written as thinly-veiled commentary about a charismatic-yet-evil politician by his playwright brother. Not gonna lie – I definitely want to stage them. 

Exit West and Those Who Knew are both like poetry at times, and are both equally adept at describing foreign landscapes and familiar emotion. Likewise, both speak of enormous political travesties, but still paint a picture of hope.

The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh

The Water Cure is set on another unnamed island – this one presumably New Englandish. Or Pacific Northwestish? Or maybe not at all, given that the island gets quite warm over the summer…. Just one of the many mysteries Mackintosh leaves the reader with.

“King” has claimed an island for his wife and daughters to protect them from the evils of men. But then King disappears and three other males are shipwrecked on the island and the women must decide how to protect themselves on their own – if they can. And if they want to.

Since Margaret Atwood, she of The Handmaid’s Tale, says this is “a gripping, sinister fable”, that probably gives you some idea of how the story feels. Much is told through first-person narrative, but many clues are given as to the potential unreliability of the narrators. For instance, the older two daughters are two years apart, while the other is much younger – to hear them speak, the eldest are possibly late teens with the younger one a tween? But then one of the men says, as he tries to convince a daughter to leave with them that “30 isn’t too late to start over.” How old are they? What else is it that they’re not saying?

One of the belated books I recently finished was Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and there are some obvious similarities here beyond “isolated family”. Both stories relay dark family secrets as sinister as any of the political games in Exit West and Those Who Knew. If you’re looking for a chill this summer, this water is where you find it.

Habibi, by Craig Thompson

I generally dislike graphic novels. I tend to read quickly and despite that “thousand word” thing, pictures interfere with that. When I picked this hold up from the library, the librarian was all “this is so gorgeous! I’m so excited for you!” and I had to keep my face from grimacing because it was huge. 672 oversized pages. Ug.

I never thought I would finish this book in time for book club at the end of the month, much less in one sitting. And not even a long sitting. Between instagramming the beautiful spring day and petting corgimutts, it probably took less than three hours. In fact, I’m trying to decide if I have time to go back through it again because, whoo boy, there is a lot to process.

Habibi tells the tale of two escaped child-slaves in a fictional Islamic land – Thompson has stated it is a mythical landscape and not necessarily the Middle East – but also tales from the Qur’an and the Bible. At first, the story unfolds in a tangled, jumbled mess, but within not too many pages, the thread becomes clear.

Clear…. but not necessarily untangled. This is a very graphic graphic novel. Other critics argue over whether or not the depictions of rape and black and transgender characters are tasteful or tasteless. I tend to fall a bit on the latter… especially given that the book was written by a white man with a fundamental Christian upbringing. Even the “good” characters have a more than a bit of “savage Arab” to them, which, coming from a white, non-Muslim writer, feels more than a bit “white savior here to bring the story of these lesser people to the white people.”

So – a quick read… but a complicated one. I’m looking forward to book club to see what my smart friends have to say. Including the one who recommended this book and went to Div school.

The Los Angeles Times described Those Who Knew as “mesmerizing [and] uncannily prescient”.  These books are each hypnotizing in their own way, some more visionary than others, and all ripe for discussion. If/when you’ve read them, let’s discuss!


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