Life is full of wonders. One of them is Mohsin Hamid’s ‘Exit West’ being short-listed for Booker 2017. It’s a badly written book that didn’t make much sense to me. Sayeed and Nadia meet, in their country that is soon to be engulfed in a conflict. They fall in love, well sort of, and then escape the country to the west, when living in their country becomes untenable. The first half of the book is reasonably good – the sexual tension between the lovers, and the worsening situation in the city of their birth come out well. My only complaint about the first half was what I thought was a bit of a lazy writing – Hamid won’t tell us where they are – and when is this all happening. It could be Iraq, Syria, Yemen, but we don’t get to know. I didn’t appreciate the abstraction. But the novel nose-dives big time in the 2nd half, when Sayeed and Nadia make their way to Mykonos, London and then San Francisco. The abstraction touches a new and a completely understandable level. I don’t even know what Hamid was trying there. Was he going for some magic-realism ala Marquez and Rushdie. If he was, he sure didn’t succeed, with his light and dark Londons. The story floundered. The arc of Sayeed-Nadia relationship didn’t make any sense either. It was repetitive, unengaging and seemed to go in a circle.
A Booker short-list, ‘A Little Life’ is an extraordinarily sad story of an orphan. Jude St. Francis who suffers through abuses all his childhood and never recovers from them as an adult. It is a moving story indeed and the shows the good and bad of the world in equal parts. Even though the book starts as the story of four friends, it quickly focuses on one of them and the novel becomes his story. However, there are major flaws in the story line. For example, not clear why Brother Luke kidnapped Jude out of the monastery. If abuse was the objective, it could have been accomplished in the monastery too; he was being abused there anyway. Then the twist of Jude’s straight friend Williem suddenly developing feelings of Jude and their becoming lovers. Not very believable. The book is also way too long and tends to be repetitive. A thousand cuts on the arms and the legs, the same friends meeting for dinner at a Sushi places a hundred times, Jude’s constantly losing weight – after a point start getting on your nerves. My verdict: No. A good story but not a good read.
The Booker Award winner for 2013 – which made Catton the youngest ever writer to win a Booker. So what’s The Luminaries all about? What makes it special? At the heart of it, the novel is a mystery. However a mystery woven with such magic and spun into an entangled web so beautifully that the eight hundred plus pages just turn themselves. It is 1866 in New Zealand. Hokitika is the latest gold rush town. After a few strange happenings in the town, twelve men gather to discuss. Each of them has a part of the puzzle. And then the story takes off, the incidents get more and more bizarre and the mystery deeper and murkier. Catton does a great job in engaging the reader, challenging her to speculate, guess, get perplexed but continue reading. The pace is good and the interest consistent. When all is revealed at the end, in a few quick chapters on actual sequence of event, and it turns out to be a fairly simple story – you realize the masterfulness of the writer in managing to engage you for so long. So what does Catton excel in – what got her the Booker. I don’t think it’s capturing the 19th century New Zealand (though she does a decent job doing that) or that the story is extraordinary. For me, it is the way she spins the yarn and the characterizations. She digs deep into each character (and the hook has a dozen and a half of them). Each of the characters is presented in such subtle detail that he or she comes to life – distinguished and polished. Sample this: “For Gascoigne was extraordinarily moody. The wave of compassion that had compelled him to lie on Anna’s behalf dissipated almost as soon as the whore was freed: it darkened to despair that his help might, after all, have been a vain one – misplaced, wrong, and worst of all, self serving. Selfishness was Gascoigne’s deepest fear. He loathed all signs of it in himself, quite as a competitive man loathes all traces of weakness that might keep him from his selfish goal. This was a feature of his personality of which he was extraordinarily proud, however, and about which he loved to moralize. Whenever the irrationality of all this became too evident to ignore, he would fall into a very selfish bout of irritation.” See the fine etching of the character there. And he is not even the primary character. The end is a little disappointing, a couple of sequences appear too convenient and not all is explained. Don’t know if the book deserved a Booker or not but it’s a compelling read. Enjoy the journey.