Exit West is for the first half a realistic love story about a couple trapped in a city dissolving into civil war. A tale of passion, family life and secretive liaisons. But as the world collapses around Nadia and Saeed, reality begins to seep away. Instead we move into a world where doors begin to exist that will take you to other places.
There is also vital commentary on war and anti-immigration feeling from the viewpoint of two people who could be seen as victims of both, including a very perspective look at how easy it is for someone who is marginalised and isolated to be pulled into violence. Of course our heroes avoid the temptation, and benefit from the most gracious sides of some communities, but they spend a lot of time being pulled with the tidal wave of changes to society.
The “doors” were the most unexpected part of the story, but they are a handy literary device, saving the need for explanations as to how people got to places, just that it was accepted that they did.
Saeed and Nadia’s relationship is what shines through the book though. Something that inspires both of them to try for better, and offering two views on changes, along with the dynamic within the relationship itself. It is clear that each other is what is most important throughout much of the book, and that is what inspires each of them.
I even enjoyed the ending, bittersweet though it was, with the epilogue helping to end on a bit more of an upbeat note.
Having read this, I think it much more deserved the 2017 Booker prize than Lincoln in the Bardo (the winner) did.
History of Wolves stands out for its sense of place. This is a book in which the setting stands out on its own, for its beauty and isolation. We are given a strong feeling that how the plot unravels is because of the lake between Linda and Paul.
The plot however is not one I enjoyed. There was too much blame placed on the teenager, although of course as the narrator she would look to blame herself. And it was generally just exploring the worst sides of human nature: weakness, selfishness and cowardice. Although the narrator’s lack of action is understandable, and she does somewhat redeem herself as she begins to forgive as an adult.
I think the three plots tied in here muddy each other, and despite the title there is a distinct lack of wolves within the story, with the “History of Wolves” itself being a very minor plot point. And despite the importance of religion to the direction the plot goes in, it is again barely mentioned.
However the writing was very good, and as mentioned earlier, the sense of place was brilliant. The impression is given that the place itself matures towards being more civilised as these actions were left behind.
This is not any autumn, this is the drawing in of autumn Street the Brexit referendum, with the shock and disbelief spreading through the country and anger against imigrints at a high. But it is also about parenthood and nostalgia.
Elizabeth starts to understand her childhood, and how inspired she was by the musician who lived downstairs and frequently looked after her. At the same time her (previously presumed straight) mother falls in love with her female childhood icon from tv. This is intertwined with current affairs as the country tried to understand what it had just voted for.
The writing style is quite modern and detached, making the pages fly by. The sort of style that gets a book into a Man Booker shortlist.
I appreciated how at the end we just broke into the personal lives of the direct characters, and ended on a note of hope that maybe we could take the he best of the nostalgia with us.
I again took advantage of The Book People Man Booker shortlist pack as soon as the list was released, but then my September/October was busier than I expected, so I only managed to read three before the winner was announced (then the winner as it wasn’t one I’d done). I also failed to do most of my reviews at the time, so to tidy up for the end of 2016, I have some quick summaries below.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
This was a heavy read, about loss in the face of political change, love and family ties. It is also about how music can transcend these things: and how sometimes it can’t. Despite the serious nature of the subject matter I couldn’t stop turning the pages, lost in the worlds of Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli. The writing was good, it led to deep thinking and overall was a good read.
All That Man Is – David Szalay
I only read the first hundred pages of this. It was so tedious in its “plot” mostly about young men wandering every advantage they have and making the worst of themselves. Its gone to the charity shop.
Hot Milk – Deborah Levy
I did manage to review
this one. In summary: a page-turning read, but not really worth of the Booker.
The Sellout – Paul Beatty
This one didn’t particularly call to me from the shelves, so I only read it after it won. I can see why it was the one the judges agreed on; and feels very appropriate given the year we have just had. Because of the format of the writing, it was harder to follow: but that will also have been why it stood out to the judges.
I would have given the prize to Do Not Say We have Nothing: which is a suitably deep book whilst also being good to read.
One of this year’s Man Booker shortlist (and one of only three that I managed this year before the winner was announced: life somewhat got in the way of reading this year) this is an examination of a codependent mother-daughter relationship, a launching of an independent life, a love affair and a battle with hypochondria.
What I couldn’t see is why this could be stand-out enough to win the Man Booker prize (it didn’t) as it seemed to barely be above the standard of usual airport paperbacks. Family drama and a developing sexual relationship are set against the backdrop of Greece and a doctor with dubious ethics to produce something quite unremarkable.
Tóibín has approached the life of Jesus from a new angle, that of his mother Mary. As his mother she is far more interested in her son’s safety than in him being the saviour, and in how his friends lead him astray than what he is responsible for.
I’m never quite sure about men writing novels aiming to capture such a female experience as motherhood, but Tóibín does well. His Mary is emotional without being overly sentimental, and strong in her own way. But she still frames herself against the (absent) men in her story. Women are not a frame, and he doesn’t quite get that concept. Of course the point is the gospel, in which the character herself is not the point, but she does not focus purely on her child.
There is little new here. Of course the story is known, and the concept of it as a tragedy is also unexpected. So there ends up being little new here except a minor reframing. It doesn’t explain why this was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.
Over the last few weeks I’ve read the shortlist, as I’ve always intended to in previous years. There was one big disappointment: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, one slight disappointment: How to be Both, and a few surprisingly enjoyable reads.
In summary I loved:
- J certainly gave me something to think about in a post-apocalyptic world, and reason to contemplate the impact of prejudice.
- I loved We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, although thought it might border on too fluffy to win.
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North was again a book that promoted thought on humanity, in a much darker way.
- But I think that The Lives of Others deserves to win as a well-written, thoughtful piece that enlarged my understanding the most.
Post Announcement Thoughts
Whilst it wouldn’t have been my pick to win, The Narrow Road to the Deep North was a well-written piece of serious literature, a well-deserved prize winner.
The last of the Man Booker 2014 Shortlist prize books, finished the evening before the results are announced. The Lives of Others is a book about family, business and revolution in India not long after independence.
Its told from the point of view of several different members of the family, and I often found myself flicking back to keep track of who was in which generation. This was done well though, and gave a richness as different characters’ viewpoints gave a full view of life within the family.
I did feel I could have benefited from knowing more about politics in India in the mid-twentieth centenary, and will be looking for a non-fiction book on this subject soon. But even feeling this lack of knowledge, The Lives of Others gave a view on the importance of caste in India and a taste for revolution on a wave after the British Empire withdrew.
To Rise Again is the Man Booker shortlist book I’ve been least impressed by. Its supposedly witty and a commentary on modern life, however its very much a self-absorbed, miserable way of life.
I had some sympathy for the protagonist ‘s plight, but still found him fundamentally irritating. A bit of clarity of what was going on with his life earlier would have been better, because I just wanted to give him a shake and tell him to get over himself.
I would be very disappointed if this one won the prize, and think that it possibly shouldn’t have been on the shortlist.
I enjoyed this exploration of how human society functions and who we really are. It is a near-future dystopian world, in which something has happened which is gradually revealed through the book. J builds a realistic world where societal rules have been changed in the wake of disaster.
The selection of narrators wove together well, combined with a few different styles of writing. It only jarred for me on the first transfer, when I was still expecting a single narrator, then felt seamlessly done.
Without revealing the plot, I find the ending bittersweet satisfying. The reveal was also very well done, with gradually less subtle hints as to the true plot until all the pieces had taken into place. With hindsight the meaning of the book name is clear and a perfect choice for the book.
“I’m being facetious,” she said. “Uniquely malevolent is a quotation from then. I use it now for anyone or anything not approved of by junior academics.”