The Surreal Meets the Quotidian in Japan

Killing Commendatore     Haruki Murakami     (2017)

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen      (2018) 

No, this is not a murder mystery. It’s more . . . well, it defies categorization, but maybe it’s an exploration of how our inner lives of thought can transform our external lives of action in puzzling but sometimes pleasing ways.  


The unnamed narrator of this massive novel is a thirty-something artist, a fairly successful painter of workmanlike portraits, mainly for corporate executives who want their likenesses on the walls of their headquarters. When the narrator’s wife of six years unexpectedly asks for a divorce, he dejectedly takes off on an impromptu tour of northern Japan for several weeks and then settles, alone, into a rental house in the mountains near Odawara, in central Japan. This house is owned by the artist Tomohiko Amada, now in a nursing home with dementia, who garnered fame creating traditional Japanese scenes on his canvases. The odd characters who accrete to the tale include an enigmatic tech entrepreneur (Menshiki), an adolescent girl, the girl’s aunt, and, most startlingly, a two-foot tall “Idea” named Commendatore, who comes to life from out of a painting by Amada. This painting, which the narrator discovers in his rental home, depicts a scene from the Mozart opera Don Giovanni. Got all that?  

The characters move through actual places in Japan, and the story progresses primarily through dialogue, which is rendered in idiomatic American English. Western readers can get to feeling comfortable with this dialogue, and even more comfortable because of the many overt and lightly veiled references to European literature, art, and classical music, especially the opera canon. It’s all rooted firmly in realism until—bam—Commendatore appears to the narrator, trying to guide him through his dual crises of marriage and of artistic authenticity. Some examples of Commendatore’s pronouncements:  

  • “There are plenty of things in history that are best left in the shadows. Accurate knowledge does not improve people’s lives. The objective does not necessarily surpass the subjective, you know. Reality does not necessarily extinguish fantasy.” (301)

  • “Cause and effect are hard to separate here. Because I took the form of the Commendatore, a sequence of events was set in motion. But at the same time, my form is the necessary consequence of that very sequence.” (539) 

The character Menshiki may also have been sent to the narrator as a mentor, since he has some revelatory lines: 

  • “The best ideas are thoughts that appear, unbidden, from out of the dark” (203) 

  • “Sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement, otherwise we won’t know which side we’re on.” (206) 

Perhaps Killing Commendatore was not the wisest choice for my initial foray into the world of the prolific novelist Murakami, but I was mesmerized for most of its 681 pages, as the narrative drifted one way and then another. I did struggle with some of Murakami’s elements of the supernatural, especially the narrator’s passage across subterranean Stygian rivers and through murky, stifling tunnels, which may or may not be metaphorical. But Murakami always returns to the quotidian, often with graceful language like this: “I went to the fridge and drank some cold mineral water straight from the bottle and managed to chase away the dregs of sleep that remained like scraps of clouds in the corners of my body.” (177) 

If you’re willing to let your mind embrace the inexplicable for a while, Killing Commendatore may provide insights into human relationships as well as into creative processes. As Menshiki proclaims, “’There are some things that can’t be explained in this life . . . and some others that probably shouldn’t be explained. Especially when putting them into words ignores what is most crucial.’” (593)

Forced Emigration

Without a Country     Ayşe Kulin     (2016)

Translated from the Turkish by Kenneth Dakan     (2018)

In the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, German universities, funded by the government there, were highly esteemed. American students trekked off to Germany to pursue graduate degrees in both the humanities and the sciences. German research publications influenced scholars around the world. However, when Nazi oppression of Jews stepped up in the 1930s, many of the faculty in German universities and medical schools—Jews and those critical of the Nazi regime—were forced to emigrate. Although I knew these historical facts, until I read Without a Country, I had no idea that dozens of German scholars took positions in Turkey, which was building up its educational system in the years just prior to World War II.

In Without a Country, Ayşe Kulin tells the story of one German Jewish scholar and his family who leave everything behind in Frankfurt so that he can take a position in Istanbul in 1933. According to an author’s note, an actual German pathologist inspired the fictional character of Gerhard Schliemann, who lands a job in Turkey and negotiates with the Turkish government to find job placements in Istanbul and Ankara for many other German academics and physicians. Schliemann’s descendants grow up in Turkey and navigate the paths of nationality and religion in varied ways. The Schliemann family and their friends evolve not only as German/Turkish/American but also as Jewish/Muslim/Christian, some practicing, most not.

That’s the basic premise of this intriguing family saga that provides, in three sections, scenes from the 1930s/1940s, the 1960s, and then the present day. Most of the action is set against the magnificent scenery of Turkey, especially the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, city of ancient churches, mosques, and palaces. Political movements and political unrest play out in the background; I fact-checked a few of the historical references and found them to be accurate. In a sense, novelist Kulin is telling the story of modern Turkey through her fiction.

In the first section of the book readers get brief scenes depicting significant incidents in the lives of the Schliemann family. The details of their escape from Nazi Germany to a welcoming Turkey are absorbing, and the individual characters come to life. Even in the second section, Gerhard and his wife, Elsa, remain in the story as their children and grandchildren take center stage. I was disappointed, however, in the final section of the book, which shifts from third-person narration to first-person, with the narrator being Esra, the great-granddaughter of Gerhard and Elsa. The multi-generational family chronicle is diluted as readers hear little or nothing of the fates of beloved characters from previous decades. The novel would have been much stronger if the contemporary section had been expanded considerably.

Still, I recommend Without a Country for its depiction of people in a multicultural society in an area of the world that has seen much discord. As Gerhard was “without a country” when he left Germany in the 1930s, so his great-granddaughter Esra will be “without a country” if she leaves Turkey in the present day. Kulin has a keen awareness of the sacrifices, compromises, and heroism of families caught in the tumult of history.

Mysteries from 3 Countries

In this post are reviews of mysteries from Iceland, the United States, and England, offering quite distinctive approaches to the genre. For even more reviews of mystery novels, go to the Archive in the right-hand column and click the “Mystery” category.

The Shadow District     Arnaldur Indriðason     (2017)    

Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb


I haven’t read a Scandinavian noir since I raced through all three volumes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) a decade ago. Those novels were terrifying for me, but I kept turning the pages. Although Indriðason’s The Shadow District is billed on the cover as a thriller, it’s not scary—or even fast-paced—but it’s a serviceable mystery that I would class loosely as a police procedural.

The novel toggles between present-day Reykjavik and the same city during World War II, when Iceland was occupied by British and American troops. In the present day, a 90-year-old man is found dead in his apartment. Looking for a motive for the murder of this seemingly innocuous elderly person, retired police detective Konrad reopens an investigation into the unsolved murder of a young woman that took place in 1944 in the titular Shadow District. Readers follow the path of the investigators in 1944, but Konrad has to uncover the details painstakingly, because records of this unsolved case have (surprise!) disappeared. One thread of inquiry involves the huldufólk, the elves of Icelandic folklore. As a character explains, stories about the huldufólk “can reveal a great deal about people’s attitudes over the centuries, whether it’s their fear of the unknown or their desire for a better life or dreams of a better world. They can tell us so much directly and indirectly about life in the past.” (207-08) If you want to join the stampede for Scandinavian crime stories but shudder at the usual gore, this Icelandic offering may fill the bill. Note that the translation uses British English, so there are a few idiomatic phrases that may puzzle American readers. And the English-language edition of this book spells the author's surname "Indridason" when in fact the Icelandic spelling is "Indriðason." There's quite a difference, since "ð" is pronounced as "th."

The Last Place You Look     Kristen Lepionka     (2017)


Now, this novel is truly scary, so I had to skim cautiously over several sections in which the tension built. But it’s well written, and I wanted to read to the end to discover the murderer.

Private detective Roxane Weary is the thirty-something daughter of a recently slain Columbus police officer. She had a conflicted relationship with her father, but she’s devastated by his death and has turned to whiskey for solace. Meanwhile, in an Ohio prison, inmate Brad Stockton has exhausted his appeals and is slated for execution. Brad’s sister, Danielle, hires Roxane to see if there’s anything that can be done to save him. Danielle swears that she has caught sight of Sarah Cook, the daughter of the couple that Brad was convicted of murdering decades ago. Sarah disappeared and is presumed dead also. The case gets exceedingly complex and dangerous as Roxane delves into it, drawing plot elements from actual cases that I’ve seen in the news over the past few years.

I found the first-person narration of The Last Place You Look engaging, revealing Roxane as a hard-nosed yet caring Sam-Spade-like detective. Her sexual liaisons with both men and women are treated matter-of-factly, not as aberrations. Lepionka’s characters have substance, and her plot is cleverly orchestrated.  

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales     PD James     (2017)    


Renowned British mystery writer PD James died in 2014 at the age of 94, so be warned that this small collection of her stories is not new work. Instead, gathered in a slim volume are six stories that first appeared in print between 1973 and 2006. These are classic James mysteries, very much in the tradition of the Golden Age mysteries that James transformed with a signature wit and careful writing throughout her career. Four of the six stories are told in first-person narrative, and the reader should be wary of assuming that sympathy with the narrator is warranted.

Take this PD James collection along on your next vacation, for engaging reading in the airport or train station. If you want more about the writing methods of PD James, see my review of her 2009 nonfiction book, Talking About Detective Fiction.

Meet an Iranian Poet

Song of a Captive Bird     Jazmin Darznik     (2018)


If you’ve never heard of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967), get ready to be introduced to the startling voice of a woman who writes viscerally about the emotions of repression, alienation, and love. In Song of a Captive Bird, Iranian-American writer Jazmin Darznik has fictionalized the life of Forugh Farrokhzad, who is known primarily as “Forugh.” Inserted throughout Darznik’s prose text are excerpts from English translations of Forugh’s poetry, which provide a taste of her style and illuminate the events of the novel.

Song of a Captive Bird gave me insights into a culture that I knew very little about. The Persian literature of Iran goes back at least two and a half millennia, with a strong tradition of love poetry, and Forugh steeped herself in this literature as she wrote her own poems. Here, in first-person narrative, novelist Darznik imagines Forugh’s struggles with writing candidly, as a woman, about sexuality in mid-twentieth-century Iran:

“Mine was a country where they said a woman’s nature is riddled with sin, where they claimed that women’s voices had the power to drive men to lust and distract them from matters of both heaven and earth. Yet, when I leafed through magazines and opened volumes of poetry, I found that men has always described their love and their lovers with utter frankness and freedom. For thousands of years men had compared their beloveds to whatever they pleased, voiced all manner of amorous petitions and pleas, and described all the states to which love delivered them. And people read this poetry with complete equanimity. No one screamed out in protest. No one cried, ‘Oh God, the foundations of morality have been shaken!’" (170)

Reviewers of Forugh’s poetry sometimes compare her to Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), who was her contemporary, though there is no evidence that the two knew of each other’s work. I see similarities, in that both expressed women’s emotions in a raw style that was often criticized during their lives as unwomanly or otherwise inappropriate.

Readers should be cautious not to accept as fact all the incidents in this novelized version of Forugh’s life. As Darznik explains in her “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, she extrapolated, because biographical information about Forugh is sparse. In the novel, Forugh characterizes herself as a difficult girl-child in a highly patriarchal society: “My willfulness was my mother’s torment. An Iranian daughter is taught to be quiet and meek, but from earliest childhood I was stubborn, noisy, and brash. A good Iranian daughter should be pious, modest, and tidy; I was impulsive, argumentative, and messy. I thought of myself as no less than my brothers, with wit and daring to match theirs.” (367) Darznik’s portrayal of Forugh continues her brashness and daring into adulthood, as she publishes what is viewed as scandalously explicit verse under her own name and as she takes on lovers. Forugh specifically defies and undermines the strong cultural emphasis on female virginity.

Darznik’s casting of the novel in first-person narrative lends an immediacy and also creates tension for the reader: Does the story extend through Forugh’s entire life? If so, how will Forugh explain her own death?  I found the last 75 pages (out of 401 pages) of Song of a Captive Bird to be weaker than the rest of the book, with many years of Forugh’s life skipped over and with the cause of Forugh’s death left ambiguous. But these critiques do not significantly diminish the power of the story.

From a twenty-first-century standpoint, we know what was going to happen in Iran after Forugh’s death. In the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Pahlavi dynasty of monarchs was overthrown, and an Islamic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Many Iranians who could afford to leave the country emigrated, including Jazmin Darznik’s own family. In the two suitcases that her family was able to take with them when they fled, Darznik’s mother brought a slim volume of Forugh’s poetry. This act speaks to the influence of Forugh.

Near the end of Song of a Captive Bird, Darznik puts into Forugh’s mouth a prophetic statement, lamenting Iran’s adherence to patriarchal traditions and its reliance on its vast oil reserves:  “I feared an age that had lost its heart, and I was terrified at the thought of so many crippled hands. Our traditions were our pacifiers, and we sang ourselves to sleep with the lullaby of a once-great civilization and culture. Ours was the land of poetry, flowers, and nightingales—and poets searching for rhymes in history’s junkyards. The lottery was our faith and greed our fortune.” (373-4)

Brazil, Early 1960s

All Is Beauty Now     Sarah Faber     (2017)


Historical facts that I learned from this novel:  After the American Civil War, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 Southerners fled to Brazil, where slavery was still legal and where the Brazilian government offered them incentives to settle. These immigrants, called the Confederados, and their descendants lived in enclaves, mostly near Rio de Janeiro and Sấo Paulo. Although there was considerable intermarriage with Brazilians over the decades, Confederados were an identifiable ethnic group in Brazil as late as the 1960s and 1970s.

Dora, a descendant of Confederados, is married to Hugo, a handsome Canadian engineer. They live outside Rio and have three daughters. In the opening pages of All Is Beauty Now, the eldest daughter, Luiza, disappears while swimming in the South Atlantic in March 1962. Canadian novelist Susan Faber slowly unfolds the back story to this disappearance, probing deeply into the psyches of each of the five members of the family. The chapters move forward and backward in time and switch off among characters. It soon becomes apparent that Hugo’s mental illness is a catalyst for many other actions in the plot. Hugo would likely be diagnosed today as having bipolar disorder, but in the early 1960s the term did not exist, nor did effective treatments.

I dipped into All Is Beauty Now over a period of several weeks, soaking up descriptions of the white-sand beaches and lush gardens, the wild riotousness of Carnival, the extravagance of the nightclubs in Rio. Hugo finds that, compared with Canada, “Rio was a demented Eden, crackling with newness and feeling . . . Here, below the equator, as the Brazilians say, there is no sin.” (37)

Beneath the surface issue of Luiza’s presumed drowning, Faber analyzes, perhaps in too much detail, the effect of Hugo’s mental state on his family and on others around him. The question of drug treatment for Hugo is fraught. For example, in a flashback, Luiza asks herself, “What if the doctors stripped away his moods, then found there was nothing left?” (55) As the family prepares to move to Hugo’s native Canada to seek better care for him, Dora muses on the luxury of having servants in Brazil:  “When the Confederados arrived in Brazil, her father told her, they found cockroaches the size of a fist, and mosquitoes carrying dengue, malaria, encephalitis. A third of her ancestors died; a third went home, and accepted Northern rule; a third stayed, thrashed and coaxed the landscape. And now she, their descendant, can do almost nothing for herself, by herself. Some part of her is grateful that Canada will be hard. Perhaps all that labour will wash away the slick sheen of her advantages.” (260)

Faber’s prose ranges from languid to exotic in this melancholic novel. The pacing of this novel is very slow, totally unhurried, like a drowsy day on a magnificent beach. But the ocean can sweep anyone away with cruel rapidity.

Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part I

Go, Went, Gone     Jenny Erpenbeck     (in German, 2015)

Translated by Sarah Bernofsky     (in English, 2017)


Richard is retiring from his position as a classics professor in Berlin. In his university office, he packs up books, clears out drawers, sorts stacks of papers. His next steps are somewhat unclear, both to him and to us as readers. Maybe he’ll write some journal articles. Maybe he’ll kick back and take his boat out on the lake on which his suburban house is situated. Richard is a widower with no children, no close family, and an ex-mistress who is no longer part of his life; he does have a good circle of friends.

By chance, Richard walks by some refugees who are protesting the poor living conditions in a ramshackle tent village in a city park. In Germany, the refugee crisis is not abstract but obvious from makeshift camps and from daily news reports. Ever the academic, Richard wonders about the backgrounds of the refugees flooding his country. He decides to do some background reading, particularly on conflict in African nations, and he draws up a list of questions to ask individual refugees from Africa. It’s unclear what the end product of this “research” will be. Will he produce some written piece? If so, will he come down as pro-refugee or anti-refugee?  Without much trouble, Richard gains access to a group of African refugees housed in an abandoned building near his home, and he starts working through his question list. (I’ll pass over the potential ethical issue of failing to seek permission for doing research on human subjects!)

Go, Went, Gone holds many layers of meaning, and as a reader you can unpeel as many of these as you want. For instance, as Richard gets more and more involved with the refugees, he’s reminded of lines in classical literature that speak to moral quandaries. He’s trying to figure out how Germans should respond to the situation, all the while Erpenbeck reminds us, by brief references to online forums, of a thriving racist element in German society.

The novel is set in the present day, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has left residual tensions between West and East, between capitalism and communism. Richard lived for decades under an oppressive regime in East Berlin, so he’s receiving a pension that’s significantly less than that of his counterparts who worked in West Berlin. Still, in some ways he’s a beneficiary of the removal of the Wall:  “Who deserves credit for the fact that even the less affluent among their circle [in the former East Berlin] now have dishwashers in their kitchens, wine bottles on their shelves, and double-glazed windows? But if this prosperity couldn’t be attributed to their own personal merit, then by the same token the refugees weren’t to blame for their reduced circumstances. Things might have turned out the other way around. For a moment, this thought opens its jaws wide, displaying its frightening teeth.” (95)

As Richard’s views on the refugees are slowly, slowly developing, small incidents take on larger meaning. Here it’s windblown dust on leaves: “The Sirocco . . . came from Africa and across the Alps, sometimes even bringing a bit of desert sand along with it. And indeed, on the leaves of the grapevines you could see the fine, ruddy dust that had made its way from Africa. Richard had run his finger across one of the leaves and observed how this small gesture produced a sudden shift in his perspective and sense of scale. Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.” (55) Bodies of water take on a liminal quality, marking some critical transition. Richard thinks often about the lake in his backyard, which holds the body, never found, of a man who presumably drowned a couple of months before the novel begins. This sad fact reminds Richard of the thousands of refugees who’ve drowned in dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean.

Novelist Erpenbeck could easily have slid into didacticism or preachiness, but she doesn’t. She juxtaposes the quotidian activities of Richard’s life (making toast, taking his car in for service) with his increasing existential concerns about the direction of his life and the direction of the world around him. She presents the refugees mostly as benign figures, victims of civil wars or sectarian repression in their native countries, but not every refugee is honest or honorable.

Sarah Berofsky’s translation of this novel is exceptionally good, especially considering the difficulties of dealing with characters who are presented as speaking in many different languages. Richard himself speaks German, English, Russian, and Italian, in addition to his fluency in ancient Greek and Latin. He communicates with the refugees mostly in English and Italian—many of them crossed the Mediterranean and landed first in Italy. They work hard to learn the language of each country they arrive in, with the hope of remaining. The “go, went, gone” of the title refers to their language learning, since the conjugation of the German verb for “to go” (gehen, ging, gegangen) is important to eventual fluency. The title also refers to the constant “going” of the refugees, their peregrinations from one European nation to another, from one government office to another, from one squalid camp to another, in hopes of finding asylum and work.

Very few books written in other languages get translated into English. I try to report on a few of them on this blog, to reveal non-Anglophone patterns of thought. Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant and profound novel that you should not miss.

Watch for my upcoming review of Here in Berlin by Cristina García, under the heading "Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part 2."

Bonus Post: 2 International Novels

Spring Garden     Tomoka Shibasaki    (2014)

Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton     (2017)


In bustling present-day Tokyo, Taro is a loner. He’s in his thirties, divorced, and living in an apartment building that will be torn down as soon as the leases of the last few tenants expire. Taro’s entire neighborhood is undergoing change, with other buildings slated for demolition and with constant construction work at the commuter train stations. As people in his building move out, the only remaining inhabitants besides Taro are a comic-book artist named Nishi and a retired woman whom Taro calls “Mrs. Snake,” after the zodiacal designation on her apartment door. Despite Taro’s resistance to social interaction, the three neighbors get to know each other, exchanging small gifts in the Japanese custom. Nishi reveals to Taro her obsession with a large sky-blue house nearby, and she gives him a copy of a photography book, called Spring Garden, that was published many years previously about the house. Very gradually, Taro also becomes interested in the house and its current residents. That’s the basic story, and every element of the plot’s unfolding is delicately and purposefully executed. 

The lovely house serves the purpose of getting Taro out of his isolation to some degree. Writer Tomoka Shibasaki is finding a way to tell us about Taro’s deep unhappiness. His beloved father has died, his marriage has collapsed, and even his physical surroundings are disintegrating. He’s so sad that he doesn’t realize that he’s sad. Even if you live in one of the world’s most exciting cities, even if you have a decent professional job and friendly colleagues and neighbors, you can feel alienated and depressed.

This wisp of a book—a novella really—won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in Japan. It’s been artfully translated by Polly Barton, retaining the spare feel of a Japanese garden but rendering the dialogue in idiomatic English. You can read it in a couple of hours, but it will stay with you for a long time.

Three Floors Up     Eshkol Nevo     (2015)

Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston     (2017)


From the suburbs of Toyko in the book reviewed above, we go to the suburbs of Tel Aviv for Three Floors Up, a trio of linked novellas about the residents of another apartment building. This is an upper-middle class neighborhood, mockingly called “Bourgeoisville” by some.

Arnon, on the first floor, is a businessman who is obsessed with the possibility that an elderly neighbor who often babysits for the family has sexually assaulted his young daughter. This obsession gets tangled up with Arnon’s relationship with his wife and his sexual attraction to the neighbor’s teenaged granddaughter.

Hani, on the second floor, worked as a graphic designer until her two children were born. Now she’s a stay-at-home mother who is stifled by the role, especially because her husband travels internationally for his work and is frequently away. The defining event for Hani is the appearance of her husband’s brother at her door, on the run from creditors and the police.

Devora, on the third floor, has recently been widowed and is estranged from her son. A retired judge, she’s casting about to find meaning for the remaining years of her life, so she marches in a political demonstration and meets characters who lead her in directions that she never anticipated. Devora has been reading Freud, and (speaking, of course, for the author) she gives us a Freudian interpretation of Three Floors Up:  “The first floor, which he [Freud] called the id, contains all our impulses and urges. The middle floor is the ego, which tries to mediate between our desires and reality. And the uppermost level, the third floor, is the domain of His Majesty, the superego, which calls us to order sternly and demands that we take into account the effects of our actions on society.” (211)

Each story in Three Floors Up is told in first person, with the person speaking to someone else—Arnon to an old Army buddy at a restaurant, Hani to a childhood friend in a long letter, and Devora to her late husband through an old answering machine. I found this approach somewhat contrived until I read the explanation, which is contained in Devora’s further analysis of Freud:  “I thought that he made one mistake. The three floors of the psyche do not exist inside us at all! Absolutely not! They exist in the air between us and someone else, in the space between our mouths and the ears we are telling our story to. And if there is no one there to listen—there is no story. . . . alone, a person has no idea which of the three floors he is on, and he is doomed to grope in the dark for the light switch.” (281)

I recommend that you read each segment of Three Floors Up in one sitting; ideally, read the entire book in one sitting so that you catch all the tiny links. Novelist Eshkol Nevo deftly probes the profound and yet tenuous connections between family members, neighbors, friends, and total strangers. At the end of the book, you may question how honest the three speakers were in telling their stories, you may think about what their next steps will be, and you may wonder how you would handle their predicaments.

A Refugee Fable

Exit West     Mohsin Hamid     (2017)


Author Mohsin Hamid is known for his experimental prose: Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). His latest novel, Exit West, can appear to be a more conventional novel—that is, until you hit the magical doors. These doors whisk Hamid’s characters to another country, with some similarities to the door through which CS Lewis takes his characters to Narnia. But Hamid’s characters definitely do not end up in Narnia. They’re refugees, fleeing their native country, where “militants” cause increasing upheaval and danger.

Nadia and Saeed are middle-class, college-educated professionals, working for an insurance company and an advertising agency, respectively, and living in an unnamed large city in an unnamed country that seems to be in the Middle East. The story opens as these two are just getting to know each other romantically. In the background, terrorism gradually encroaches on their lives and the lives of their families. Buildings are bombed and militants haul away people considered to be dissidents. Nadia and Saeed try to maintain a semblance of routine at first. They continue to go to work, attend their evening class, meet for coffee. Eventually, as electricity and water are cut off and their places of employment are shuttered, they hunker down with hoarded supplies. They truly do not want to leave their country, the place of their birth, but if they want to stay alive, it becomes clear that they must flee.

Nadia and Saeed seek basic survival in three successive refugee encampments, in Greece, England, and then the United States. Even though these nations are named, Hamid transforms them into dystopias. The narrator of Exit West tells us that “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end.” (245)

The frequent dislocation of their lives as refugees takes a toll on Nadia and Saeed’s relationship. “Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” (212)

Saeed, in particular, misses his home: “He was drawn to people from their country, both in the labor camp and online. It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.”  (213)

Mohsin Hamid was writing Exit West as the global refugee crisis was escalating, but he could not have foreseen world events of the year 2017, such as the travel bans instituted in the United States or the uptick in terrorist attacks in his native Pakistan. His prescient novel personalizes the plight of refugees—ordinary people who through no fault of their own are caught up in war and terrorism, who flee with great reluctance, leaving behind virtually all their possessions, clinging to the few family members who have not perished.

Near the end of Exit West, we hear from an “old woman” who has lived her entire life in Palo Alto, California:  “. . . it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (237)

There’s a very good reason why Exit West was on so many lists of the best books of the year 2017.

Ties that Bind

Ties     Domenico Starnone     (in Italian, 2014)

Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri     (in English, 2016)


The marriage of Vanda and Aldo is the centerpiece of Ties, and novelist Domenico Starnone offers us multiple perspectives on that relationship without coming to any definitive conclusions about it. First, we have the texts of letters that Vanda wrote to Aldo in the 1970s, when he left her and their two young children to live with a much younger woman. Vanda rants and raves about Aldo’s departure, and her voice is totally believable. The next section of the novel is narrated by Aldo in the present day, some forty years later, with glances back to earlier phases of his life. In the final section, we hear from Vanda and Aldo’s adult daughter, Anna, who recounts conversations with her brother, Sandro, in the present day. As readers, we have to assess the reliability of these differing viewpoints, with their differing views of the marriage of Vanda and Aldo.

Aldo, speaking as an elderly man, tells us, “At my age, it’s easy to turn a suspicion into a valid hypothesis, a valid hypothesis into an absolute certainty, an absolute certainty into an obsession.” (114) This could be a warning for the reader of Ties: watch what you accept from the narrators, from Vanda and Aldo and Anna. All is not as it seems, and pure truth is elusive.

In her translator’s introduction to Ties, Jhumpa Lahiri, herself an accomplished author of fiction, writes about the complexity of Starnone’s themes: “The entire structure of this novel, in fact, seems to me a series of Chinese boxes, one element of the plot discretely and impeccably nestled within the next. There is no hole in the construction, no fissure.” (12)

There are physical boxes in Ties, including the “box” that is the apartment in Rome where Vanda and Aldo live. On a shelf in that apartment is a shiny blue decorative cube that Aldo bought in Prague. It has a hidden compartment that holds secrets. Other boxes turn up, such as the box that contains a medical device for Vanda. Starnone also seems to point to metaphorical boxes that people construct around themselves, such as marriage, family, job.

The cover of Ties has a picture, which you can see in the inset to this review, of tangled shoelaces on the shoes that a man is wearing. The drawing, selected by the author, points to another major metaphor of the novel: the ties between people. For instance, speaking to Sandro, Anna comments, “The only ties that counted for our parents were the ones they’ve tortured each other with their whole lives.” (135)

Our translator tells us that the Italian title for this novel, Lacci, is literally “shoelaces” but also has the connotation of “a means of bridling, of capturing something.” (17) Most literally, the title connects to the unconventional way that Aldo ties his shoelaces. Aldo taught his son, Sandro, to tie shoelaces in this way when Sandro was very young. Anna has always noticed this, and she comments, “It’s true, only the two of you tie your shoes like that.” (98)  Perhaps, like shoelaces, some of the ties between people are universal and others are unique.

I caught a few typos, but Lahiri’s translation is sparkling—idiomatic and accessible, unlike translations of some other Italian novels that I’ve tried. I don’t want to wade into the controversy about how autobiographical Ties might be. Domenico Starnone is married to Anita Raja, who is allegedly the author behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, the author of the four-volume Neapolitan Novels that are wildly popular all over the world. Like Starnone, Ferrante treats issues of marital infidelity and of the ties that bind families and friends together. But Starnone’s Ties stands on its own and is a delight to read.

A Marriage in Nigeria

Stay with Me     Ayobami Adebayo     (2017)

In some traditional cultures, a wife who doesn’t produce male offspring for her husband can be supplanted by an additional wife who might be more fertile. Polygamy and paternalism are accepted.


In the contemporary Nigerian novel Stay With Me, Akin and Yejide are a modern couple. Theirs is a love match, not an arranged marriage. When they meet at university in the 1980s, they discover their immediate attraction to each other as well as their compatibility—sharing, for example, a keen interest in the Nigerian and international political scene. After several years of marriage, however, they remain childless. Akin is devoted to Yejide and doesn’t want a second wife, but he’s prodded relentlessly by his family until he takes on wife #2, Funmi, and installs her in an apartment separate from the home he shares with Yejide. They can afford this apartment because Akin is a successful accountant, and Yejide is the owner of a thriving hairdressing salon. Funmi is an especially stinging insult to Yejide because her own mother died giving birth to her, leaving her to be brought up by multiple cruel stepmothers. 

That’s the plot setup, which gets complicated by infidelities, deceptions, outright lies, and  sickle cell disease. The narrative alternates between the 1980s and 2008 and between first-person accounts by Yejide and Akin. Another seesawing is between folk practices (some of them downright dangerous) and modern medical procedures (some of them emotionally unsettling). Traditional Nigerian tales exist side-by-side with discussion of recent Nigerian political affairs. The women in Stay with Me assert influence within the family circle, and some women, like Yejide, attend university or own businesses. Yet that pressure on wives to produce male heirs is intense. As Yejide reflects: “The reasons why we do the things we do will not always be the ones that others will remember. Sometimes I think we have children because we want to leave behind someone who can explain who we were to the world when we are gone.” (119)

Through context I navigated the many honorifics that Nigerians employ to express respect for their neighbors, business associates, and relatives, particularly their elders. The dialogue here is resonant and revealing of character. A few of novelist Adebayo’s plot twists are awkward, but she gives us a view into her rich culture, peopled by men and women who strive to make the best of the lot they are dealt.

I leave you with some questions: Is the title STAY with Me or Stay with ME?  Is Akin asking Yejide to stick with him despite all their infertility problems? Or is Yejide asking Akin to be her exclusive marital partner? Or is it both?

Stay with Me was selected by the New York Times as one of the "100 Notable Books of 2017."



The Vineyard     María Dueñas     (2017)

Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García


In this sweeping page-turner, María Dueñas recounts a year in the life of Mauro Larrea, as he travels from Mexico City to Havana and on to Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. The year is 1861, and Larrea, a wealthy silver miner, has lost his fortune because his investments became entangled in the American Civil War.

Larrea’s determination to launch another business, with borrowed funds, sends him forth from his home in Mexico City and away from his beloved daughter, Mariana, who is soon to give birth to his first grandchild. Larrea lands first in Cuba, where he faces some culture shock despite the links of language and heritage. He risks everything in a wild gamble, ending up as the owner of an abandoned vineyard in his native Spain. He doesn’t want to run a winery and sails to Jerez intent on selling the vineyard, but he gets entrenched in various sub-plots involving the vineyard’s former owners, including the glamorous and brilliant Soledad Montalvo, now the wife of a London wine merchant. Oh, and he’s worried about his errant son, Nico, who’s living the high life in Paris.

That’s the plot in a nutshell, but this summary doesn’t do justice to the scenes that Dueñas can conjure up, from grimy silver mines to glittering concert halls, from the swirling dust of Mexico to the oppressive humidity of Havana and the wine-infused air of Andalusia. Although the story moves along at a rapid pace, Dueñas is able to help readers visualize each setting with well-chosen descriptors, and she conveys the emotions of Larrea, whose thoughts readers have access to. I became quite fond of the character Larrea, a handsome widower with scars from his years of manual labor, a man who knows how to drive a hard bargain but is soft toward his family and close friends. He’s a man with a conscience, often thinking what his trusted advisors would tell him when he’s in a tough situation. And he certainly does get himself into tough situations as this novel careens along. At times he feels “caught up in this spider’s web that seemed humanly impossible to extricate himself from.” (474)

Yes, The Vineyard is swashbuckling historical romance, but it’s well wrought, in a good translation. And if you like this book, don’t miss the excellent Netflix production of Dueñas’s 2009 novel, The Time in Between, about a seamstress in 1930s Spain who rises in the field of haute couture and then becomes a spy. 

Gentle Swedish Novels

Although the international taste for Nordic Noir is strong, not all the books coming out of Sweden are dark thrillers. The novels reviewed below may not suit you if your taste runs to authors Stieg Larsson (with sleuths Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander) and Henning Mankell (with detective Kurt Wallander). I harbor a fascination with Scandinavian culture, so I embrace a wide range of titles from the land of Volvos, fjords, aurora borealis, and IKEA. Here are two gentle offerings from the Swedes.  

Review #1

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend     Katarina Bivald     (2016)

Translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies

A stranger comes to town:  it’s an ancient and oft-used storyline, maybe because it has built-in plot development potential. The stranger learns the ways of the town. The town learns the ways of the stranger. The author can add to this mix some conflict, some romance, or some comical misunderstanding. Debut novelist Katarina Bivald takes advantage of all the plot possibilities in The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.


Sara Lindqvist arrives in Broken Wheel, Iowa, one August day in 2011 to visit her pen pal, Amy Harris. Sara and Amy have in common that they’re voracious readers.  Over a couple of years, Sara has gotten Amy to read Swedish bestsellers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Amy has introduced Sara to American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird.  Sara, who’s in her late 20s, has never traveled outside her native Sweden, but when she gets laid off from her job as a bookstore clerk, she decides to use her savings to take an extended trip to Iowa. Sara’s fluent in English, but she’s not prepared for small-town America still in the grips of a major recession. Not to mention that she arrives on the very day of the elderly Amy’s funeral.

The residents of Broken Wheel include all the stock characters. A gay couple owns the saloon, and an unemployed schoolteacher is the local busybody. A semi-reformed alcoholic with a sad family history serves as Sara’s chauffeur. The loud-mouthed, overweight proprietor of the diner keeps Sara fed. Amy’s handsome nephew Tom becomes Sara’s love interest.

Sara has a talent for finding just the right book, from Amy’s extensive collection, for each resident of Broken Wheel. As the Iowans embrace their European waif, the story plays out with the involvement of befuddled US immigration officials. The premise of Bivald’s novel has become more far-fetched since the 2016 American election, when anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States elected Trump, who is especially popular in Iowa. Bivald not only romanticizes rural America but also hits on many clichés.

Still, I don’t want to disparage this book. Bivald’s character Sara has wide-ranging literary tastes. She adores Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels, but she also knows her Jane Austen backward and forward. She’d just as soon pick up a book by Goethe or Annie Proulx as one by Fannie Flagg. I’m more of a book snob than Sara—I draw the line at The Bridges of Madison County. But Sara’s encounter with the Americans of Broken Wheel cheered my heart for a while.

Review #2

A Man Called Ove     Fredrik Backman (2014)

Translated from Swedish by Henning Koch

Good luck with finding a definitive pronunciation for “Ove.” I pronounce it something like “oo-vuh,” but I don’t speak Swedish.

No matter how the name sounds in your head, Ove is a Swedish curmudgeon in late middle age, and he’s not an endearing one. We meet him making his rounds as self-appointed, and unwelcome, policing agent for his neighborhood. He’s also figuring out how to commit suicide, which is perhaps a nod to that Nordic Noir tradition. The other characters in this novel are pretty much stereotypes: the saintly wife, the vivacious neighbor, the unfeeling government official, the malicious cat.


Over the course of the novel, we gradually get Ove’s life story, and we come to be more sympathetic to him. The ending is not exactly happily-ever-after, but there’s satisfying plot resolution for a number of the characters.

A Man Called Ove and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend are not "literary fiction," true. However, they present optimism in the face of difficult circumstances, which many readers may welcome in this troubled world. There’s also in each novel a refreshing societal acceptance of cultural outsiders. I think that both books have some affinity with the work of that prolific Scot Alexander McCall Smith. I read McCall Smith’s books in one sitting, and I always arise feeling a bit better about life.