Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: Exit West and Lincoln in the Bardo (Man Booker 2017 #1 and #2)

This is my first review from the Man Booker shortlist for this year. I've done it as a double of two of the three books I've read from the six-book shortlist: Mohsin Hamad's Exit West and George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. I'm still ruminating on what I want to say about the other one I've read, which is Ali Smith's Autumn, but hoping to get a review of that one up soon too.

The remaining three books on the shortlist are:
4321 by Paul Auster
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I have downloaded 4321 but to be honest, I'm struggling to get into it - we'll see. I've started Elmet, and so far, so good. Last one after that is History of Wolves, if I get to it. 

Let me commence this double review with a series of accolades, so we are not in any confusion about three key prizelist questions from the start:

Are these good books? Oh my, yes. Yes, they are. They are both amazing books in very different ways.
Do they belong on the Man Booker shortlist? COMPLETELY.
Could one of them win? Absolutely, and in fact, I think one of them *should* win.

This year's Man Booker longlist was a mixed bag to my mind, but on a 50% read basis, I think the judges have got it very, very right with their shortlist. Not only is there not a dud on it (basing that on reviews for the ones I have yet to read), but I think the weaker books on the longlist have been dropped handily, leaving a gang of six that are really worthy to contend the prize.

There are three books by men and three by women; there's a Pakistani writer (Hamad), two Brits (Smith and Mozley), and three Americans (Saunders, Fridlund and Auster), which does mean that the dreaded domination of the USians has arrived, as I think we all knew it would eventually. There are two debutantes - Fridlund and Elmet - although if we're talking novels rather than simply published works, Saunders' book is also a debut, as he has until now been an accomplished short story writer, essayist and novella writer.

The bookie odds have Lincoln in the Bardo as the clear frontrunner at 2/1, with Exit West and Elmet equal second at 4/1. These odds reflect what I also (at this point) think is a likely and reasonable outcome; although my heart belongs to Exit West, I can fully appreciate the achievement that is Lincoln in the Bardo.

So ... to the books themselves.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange, strange book. Its central conceit is a relatively simple one - it's a journey into the fact, and consequences, of the death of Abraham Lincoln's third son (and favourite child), Willie, at the age of 11 in the early years of the Civil War.

However, straight historical fiction this ain't - in fact it isn't straight anything. It's one of the twistiest books I've read for a long while.

This is a book that takes place, largely, in the bardo - that Buddhism-based limbo-like place between life and death where souls are trapped who are too attached to the things of earth to move on to the next plane of existence. For this reason, although a small portion of the book takes place in the living world, the majority of the action, narration and emotion is conveyed by a startlingly vivid array of, effectively, tethered ghosts - the souls still lingering in the graveyard in which Willie is interred.

It is a great strength of this book that the half-light world of the bardo becomes so vivid and profound, making the briefer sequences in the living world seem pale and inconsequential by comparison. Partly, of course, this is because of the different narrative devices Saunders uses for each purpose, but partly it is because the bardo ghosts are just so human in their frailty, their stubbornness and their fears.

Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and the Reverend Everly Thomas, in particular, jump off the page; their ties to earth so painful and obviously misguided, their longings so intense, their fear (especially in the Reverend's case) so overwhelming. As they chatter the narrative along, passing the conversational ball back and forth with often disorienting speed, they emerge into the light as characters. Vollman, who so desperately wanted to be a husband to his young wife; Bevins, who could not live without his male lover who rejected him; and poor Reverend Thomas, whose own terrors provided him with a vista of hell that he clings in horror to the graveyard to avoid.

There are many other ghosts, with many other reasons for staying - justice denied, pain too profound to move past, hopes thwarted, love undischarged, loyalty too strong, guilt, shame, hubris, lack of self-awareness. There are the venal couple whose failure to recognise their abuse of their children binds them to the grave; the horrific plantation owner whose soul delights in torture; the voiceless former slave girl who was the victim of multiple rapes; the three bachelors who never found love and refuse to accept that, now, they never will. There is, importantly for the plot, a young girl, who overstayed because of her deep grief at a life not lived, and has now become a monster. Through her, Saunders is able to establish the central plot arc - the older ghosts' altruistic desire to save Willie from a miserable eternity stuck in the graveyard, turning monstrous; it's against nature for the young ones to stay, as the Reverend worriedly notes early on.

What Saunders manages to convey, ultimately, though, is that cleaving to the earth is a sickness that all these half-light people, who refuse to acknowledge their dead state, need to relinquish. The language that he creates to convey this is spot-on - coffins are "sick-boxes", the ghosts move around by "skim-walking", the process of going inside one another (or a living person, as they do with Lincoln when he comes to visit Willie's body) is described in strangely delicate yet visceral terms. When ghosts do eventually let go and move on, the phenomenon is described as "matterlightblooming", which is such a resonant and perfect neologism for this purpose.

Saunders uses a slightly maddening but also highly effective mash-up technique for when he is working in the "real" (living) world, interspersing quotations from actual historical accounts and texts with made-up faux-history as it suits his narrative purpose. The fact that he cites both the actual and created sources in exactly the same pseudo-scholarly way is slightly unsettling, perhaps more now than it would've been in a pre-alternative-facts world. To find out which of the sources are actual sources and which are Saunders' creations, you need to be either a) very familiar with Civil War historiography or b) willing to invest a lot of time in digging. My Masters degree is in American History, albeit not Civil War era, so I recognised some of the more well-known of these texts, but as for the rest - your guess is as good as mine as to which are real and which are fake.

At the end of the day, this book works in a way that, on outline, it really shouldn't. I can just imagine how wacky this sounded as an idea when Saunders was pitching it ... "OK, so it's going to be narrated by ghosts, and I think I'll open with a sequence about a fella who's stuck in the bardo with a gigantic hard-on he can't get rid of because he was killed *just* before he was about to have sex with his new wife ... and I think, you know what, that I might chuck in some creepy corpse-cuddling for one of America's most revered leaders ..." It sounds like a hot mess, frankly, and yet - it isn't at all. This book is engrossing, tender, intelligent and ultimately triumphantly hopeful, and I really, really highly recommend it to your attention,

Exit West, Mohsin Hamad's novel, is an entirely different kettle of fish in almost every possible way except maybe one - it also relies on one magic realist device to achieve its effect. (Well, actually, I don't know if supernatural themes count as magic realism, so maybe that's a tenuous linkage).

Hamad's book is, essentially, a story about refugees and the seeking, and hard finding, of refuge; about why people flee, how they are treated when they do, and how the world is shifting on its axis as borders become porous and the West reflexively restricts itself.

This is the story of Nadia and Saaed; friends, almost-lovers, who together must escape the worsening terror of their home and try to make a new life elsewhere. Their city is never named; it's one of the great tragedies of our world that it could be almost anywhere in the Middle East.

Nadia, who I loved sincerely, is a secular, modern, independent woman who wears traditional dress as a shield against harassment. Saaed is a gentle, sweet, observant, family-oriented man who wants a traditional life. Nadia has had previous partners; Saaed is entirely naiive. They love each other but are chronically incompatible in a life sense - but they have to flee, and their odds are better together.

The way that they leave their city, though, is an interesting device that Hamad uses to stunning effect throughout the text. Hamad posits the existence of magic doorways, portals to other places, which, if you are lucky enough to find them and be able to pay to use them, will transport you, through a dark and birth-like journey, to somewhere Not Here. The almost Narnia-like affect of the doors is counterpointed with the sharp dislocation they experience when they emerge - the disorientation, almost derealisation, that comes with being traumatically uprooted and plonked down somewhere utterly strange, somewhere fundamentally suspicious of them.

Frog-hopping through doors to Greece, London, and, eventually, California, Nadia and Saaed and their peers write the story of the modern diaspora on their changing bodies and changing minds. The book deals to an extent with xenophobia and racism, but it is much more focused on dislocation and the journey and work of building a new self and a new life. As the book ends, we reunite with old Nadia and Saaed, both safe, both having found their way to a profound kind of peacefulness, even joy - no longer together, but both free and full with the richness of lives well lived. For this reason, Exit West is ultimately a book about the potential for rebirth even in the most hopeless-seeming darkness, and the message carries without sickliness or superficiality.

I really connected with this book; Hamad's narrative voice engaged me early, and his plot, which he allows to develop organically (a risk, but one that I think pays off), winds its way towards denouement effortlessly. I found it a very satisfying read, and it's a book I'll certainly read again. Another one I would recommend without reservation!

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