Every wartime story is unique. Some of them show you how some souls seem to bloom in the most adverse of the circumstances and yet seem to have big hearts that are joyous like they have never seen scarcity. Some are bleak, the ones that tell you about those who never made it to the casualty list after the war, and yet, they are the ones who have suffered in an unimaginably tragic way. And then there are books like Warlight, which do not aim to inspire, aim, motivate or critic the events that happened in the war. They are mere spectators to the unfolding of events, neither enabling nor trying to prevent anything. They are, at best, a low power magnifying lenses over those events, and it is left to the reader whether to glean something from the details or not. Warlight is just that, a smooth train of events with a ripple here and there which might or might seem noteworthy to the reader. For me, it was strangely hypnotic, more strange because I cannot completely explain why I was hypnotised. The book gets its name from the traditional blacking out of streets lights in public areas so that there are no points of references to aid the bomber planes that pummeled the cities in those times. Most lights were turned out even when there were no warnings of immediate air raids, barring a single light here and there, facilitating the essential transportation or other activities at night. That orange, hazy, dim light was called the war light.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In few words, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is gently narrated tale of a young couple fleeing a war and everything their nomadic, immigrant life, full of surprises life throws at them. But its poignance is deeply expressed more in the way the war batters their souls than the physical scars or bombings of deaths. It is the tale of how two adults grow into a complete different version of themselves that what they had in mind as their future. The story starts in an unnamed country, in the the middle of a political turmoil with the war looming large on the not-so-distant horizon. Saeed and Nadia’s relationship begins subtly, and even as it develops, it gives you hints that their romance is only one piece of the bigger picture. The violence forces them to uproot their lives, pack them into a backpack full of personal artefacts and head to the land of unpredictable future. It takes a while, and many deaths in between, for the story to reach a point where it makes sense, and it is easy to cast the book aside as a just another romance while it matures, but once it does reach the premise it intends to put forth, it get good, really good at it.
As with all the stories set in the bleak backdrop of a war, Exit West talks about the displacement that wars and violence cause. The physical displacement and more important the emotional displacement, it causes leaves life time scars. The burning issue that immigration is today, it has been sensitively treated and portrayed in the book, without using real names and places a lot. Tied together in an intimacy that, people who have never seen a war might call premature, Saeed and Nadia try to buy an escape, an “Exit” to “the West” by paying a man who promises them to take through a door ( or a series of doors ) away from the chaos of a war. The metaphorical nature of this door and the other “doors” that they walk through is written in a dreamy way that lends it the feel of being in a fantasy or a magical realism universe. But what is more amazing is how each of them react to their new temporary new homes each time. What I like is that the author describes the world behind the each door with just enough detail for the reader to hazard a guess but stops short of actually naming it with a geographical name leaving a reasonable scope of imaginative extrapolation on the part of the reader. And the best part is that the society in the city behind every door is a commentary on a different aspect of human nature every time. Living in peace time does not guarantee that we humans display our best behaviour.
I must mention here that when I read the reviews for the book after finishing it, I was surprised to see the “doors” receiving a lot of flak. The primary complaint was that these “doors” disrupted the storytelling for some of the readers. This surprises me because I consider them equally important characters in the story, if not more, as Nadia and Saeed. The doors are what tell you about crisis and culture shocks and the difficulties of carrying your life in a backpack or a carry one. Exit West is good enough for me to make we wan to read Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist soon.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Since I have officially given up trying to read the remaining 4 books of ManBooker Longlist 2017, let me at least attempt to pen down my thoughts about the ones I managed to read. I am almost afraid to type this because it is most definitely an unpopular opinion that I am going to voice. Hence, the disclaimer – Maybe, it is just me. It was such a huge letdown that it slightly hurts to dissect. And therefore I will try my best to not pick at it much. My biggest grouse with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is that it has too many characters, like an Indian Soap Opera. This is not always a bad thing, but in case of this book, it prevented me from warming up to its central characters. Almost all of the book, to me, is a dense, slow-moving, and hastily strung together jumble of the author’s political views and anecdotes with “names changed to protect privacy” kind of modifications. And funnily, they seemed to have been made to make recognition even easier. It would have been impactful if the book was peppered with them all over the story rather than the story being peppered in between by, an almost venomous at times, mockery of pretty much everything about the country. It is not the unfairness or fairness of it that is the problem, not at all, it is the frequency and sheer volume of it that strains the reader’s nerves. It might work in an editorial of a newspaper, but certainly not in a work of fiction, especially one that had the potential of blooming beautifully, to begin with. I see no point in stealing the spotlight from the narrative to make a political statement in a beautifully set up work of fiction. Sadly, it doesn’t live up to its promise of developing into a beautiful tale in the forthcoming pages.
I have already talked about my newfound for love magical realism in my review of The Bear and the Nightingale. Stories with magicians and monsters are charming, but what I have realised recently is how much I love stories that talk about magical that is invisible to the naked eye. The kind of magic that exists only in the mind of someone who believes in it. For everyone else, it is just another feature of our mundane lives. And it is the magic of toys that Robert Dinsdale’s The Toymakers delves into. Of course, one could argue that the toys described in Papa Jack’s Emporium are indeed different from the ordinary toys we see around us. In my opinion, that you missing the point. To a certain extent, every toy is just a toy. A rubber duck or a stuffed rabbit is only a rubber duck or a stuffed for everyone else other than the child who has a special relationship with it. It is the power of belief that separates the believer and sceptic. And that is what makes The Toymakers magical in my opinion. Because it is intended for the child, that burrows deep into the psyche of every cynical adult.
So, I stumbled across these by chance on Amazon and like an old faithful, I had to get it. About these eBooks, they are collections of articles from Pottermore peppered more than generously with insights from J. K Rowling about her thoughts and rationale on why she named and shaped certain characters the way she did. But even for a seasoned Pottermore lurker like me, some of the information was a revelation. I have made my peace with the fact that there is never going to be something as amazing as the 7 books again in the Potter Universe ( Sorry fans of Fantastic Beasts, but that is how it is for me! ). But each of these books had something interesting that adds to my appreciation of how beautifully the Magical World mirrors the Muggle World. Let me talk about my favourite parts of each of this books now.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you need any proof of how amazing Daphne du Maurier’s writing is, do give The Birds and Other Stories a go. I don’t need that reassurance though, I have already jumped over the boundaries of blind faith in her writing by this point. But, still, every du Maurier story gives me high, honestly! Yes yes, you can roll your eyes and say that I have caught the revival bug, but I am just glad that I found her work even if I found it this late in my life. Because it is simply amazing! Also, her writing lends itself to cinematic experience so naturally. Even as I was reading the first story of this anthologies, I found myself thinking about how amazing the story would be when turned into a movie. It was only later that I learnt that several of her works have been adapted to the silver screen by Hitchcock. While my opinion of the movie The Birds is not as amazing as its story, I still am a huge fan of the book. In any case, as one read The Birds, one realises how vivid are the images that form in your mind even as you are reading it. As bizarre as it might sound, The Birds was indeed an extremely “visual” experience for me.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
So trying to keep up my resolution of reading one short story collection a month, I picked up The Refugees. It is really similar in mod and tone to What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky with the difference that the Refugees is about immigrants from Vietnam while former was about immigrants from Nigeria. The stories all have varied themes but the pain of separation from family and loved ones and the culture shock remain consistent through most stories. I will take you through some of my favourites. The juxtaposition of the Vietnamese culture, the difficulties the immigrants face while they set up a life in America against the backdrop of relatively affluent American culture makes some of these stories very poignant reads.