Exit West Mohsin Hamid

“He understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

Exit West was listed by Barak Obama as one of his most inspiring reads of 2017 which makes this an interesting novel to review. I read this after I had finished reading but I wonder how much external reviews and recommendations affect the way we approach a novel? Exit West has been lauded by literary critics with the Guardian describing it as “magical”, in the New Yorker as “instantly canonical” and as one of The New York Times top ten books of the year 2017.

As it is the first half of Exit West is very enjoyable. We meet Nadia and Sayeed who live in an unnamed country (general consensus was Syria) as conflict and extremism starts to encroach on their lives. They are very different people when they meet. Nadia lives alone and has a wanderer’s spirit. She wants experiences and isn’t afraid to follow her feelings.

Clocked in black she separates from her family, has sex, indulges in recreational drugs, goes to underground concerts and does not pray. In contrast to this Sayeed has a comfortable home life with his parents but he dreams of travel and the stars. Far more devout that Nadia neither are quite what they seem.

Hamid allows us to peak inside the early days of their romance. First dates at Chinese restaurants, the reliance on smartphones and social media for communication, the slow path of discovery. It is sweet and believable. Although their city is swelling with refugees who have fled conflict they are preoccupied by everyday concerns and interests.

However, over time their lives become threatened. The government loses control to rebels and fighting breaks out; edging closer and closer to their city. Soon their city is under military control. Hamid does not dwell on the horrors that plague the city from this moment but there are moments that capture the brutality of life and the lack of control individuals soon have over their destiny. The novel begins to reflect the traumas of the past few years as the time spent under military control is resonant of the stories pouring out of areas previously held by ISIS. Soon we are taken on a journey to join the thousands of refuges who wash up on foreign shores.

Nadia and Sayeed hope they are not too late to find a way out of the city. They scrape together all the money they can and set out to find a trafficker who can get them to Europe. Hamid has a novel approach to their journey. A touch of surrealism seeps into the narrative and pulls Nadia and Sayeed along.

At one point there is a beautiful and clear description of the feelings of Saeed’s father, as he realises that the best thing he can do is to let the young pair go. He understood that they had a better chance of survival without him slowing them down. Again, the way Hamid describes this echoes the feelings that surely all parents must have at some point when they have to let go of their child’s hand. This was one of my highlights. “He had come to that point in a parent’s life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down, and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent …”

Hamid has a way of writing that is full of colour and precision. His sentences are very long and one thing that is surprising is exactly how short the novel is. Although I really enjoyed the way he writes there were other book clubbers who were not so keen, struggling with the way he played with grammar and sentences that were so long they felt unwieldly. One thing we all agreed on though was that the second half wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the first. As Exit West progressed it failed to hook the audience and lost much of its purpose. Arguably literary technique took the place of narrative control.

The dystopian cities they encounter are frightening in their possibility and as civilisation becomes harsh, spiky and then begins to crumble, so does Nadia and Sayeed’s relationship. The life of the land reflecting the changes in their partnership. Whereas Nadia is freed from her home and her upbringing Saeed struggles. The further he travels the more he begins to identify himself with his homeland and all that was left behind. The way in which Hamid understands and captures this change is striking. Very rarely does one find such a nuanced depiction of migration. This is something that can be seen and experienced whether in regard to moving away to study or fleeing unimaginable violence.

Hamid details the dislocation and strangeness of the refugee experience with the human reality side by side with black magic of lost spaces. A worthwhile read for the new year.

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Days Without End by Sebastian Barry Review

Image result for days without end

“we feel the lure of the unknown future distil into our bones”

It is difficult to know where to begin with such an exceptional novel. Days Without End, the 2016 Costa Book of the Year award winner, continues the success of celebrated Irish author Sebastian Barry.

This is part of his series dedicated to charting the fictional lives of two Irish families; the Dunnes and the McNulty’s. This book can be read alone. It is the first novel by Barry that I have read and he has been added to my list of authors to catch up on. Within the first few pages one realises why this is such a feted novel. Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty, a Sligo born American, who finds himself caught up in the shifting landscape of the birth of modern America. He experiences the wars with Native Americans and then the Civil War. In between all of this he flees the Great Famine, finds his soulmate, dances with miners, graces the stage and raises a family of his own before going back out to live the life of a soldier. His thoughts on what it is to be a soldier are fascinating.

“We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars. We ain’t saying no laws in Washington. We ain’t walking on yon great lawns. Storms kill us, and battles, and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind. Happy to breathe because we seen terror and horror and then for a while they ain’t in dominion. Bibles weren’t wrote for us nor any books. We ain’t maybe what people do call human since we ain’t partaking of that bread of heaven. But if God was trying to make an excuse for us He might point at that strange love between us”.

McNulty’s voice feels natural and believable providing the route into his thoughts and feelings. The novel does require some concentration as the language flows from McNulty’s mouth and mind. This carries the reader along but it also means that this is not a book that can be easily picked up and then put down again. Instead each chapter has to be consumed whole. It is through McNulty’s voice that Barry gets deep into the skin of McNulty, and through him into the forming body of a new nation.

“Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now.” From these lines one can glimpse at how the language moves from the earthy reality of soldiering to philosophical moments captured between battles; in nights spent freezing and starving.

McNulty has an attitude informed by his early childhood in Sligo. The moments that touch on his life during The Famine and emigration are harrowing and make the past feel as though it can be touched. He tries not the think back on The Famine or the ship where he was “worth nothing”. The silence around the Irish in America, and the way in which they start to define themselves as American, speaks volumes about the horrors that had been left behind in Ireland. “In the army you meet a dozen men a month came from Ireland but you never hear them talk about it much. You know a Irishman because he has it writ all over him”. The reader learns that McNulty lost most of his family, watching them starve to death without hope or dignity. He travels by coffin ship to Canada where he and his fellow refugees are held in quarantine. The short description of this is powerful and sticks in the throat. After such tragedy he holds close any scraps of happiness, softness and love are available in such an inhospitable world. This imbues the narrative with a sense of awe and wonder.

Those who have already read this book will have noticed one glaring omission from this review. There is a love story, a friendship, that runs throughout Days Without End. It is delicately written and quietly beautiful. I am very keen not to spoil it for other readers. Many other reviews such as Harriet at Shiny New Books have touched up this while also investigating the ideas of personal identity that play an important role in the novel. For those who are interested in reading further on the subject here is an article from The Guardian, which although not specifically about Days Without End, is still worth reading. Personal and national identity, formulation and actualisation are timely topics. Importantly they feel natural, not as though they have been shoehorned in. This is also important when it comes to the representation of Winona, a young Native American girl who becomes a significant part of McNulty’s story.

Days Without End also has the feeling of a Western. Alongside the Irish trying to make their way in this new country early in the novel are clashes between Native Americans and the frontiersmen trying to branch out and control this new, often hostile and threatening terrain. The interactions between these two groups are frequently horrific and deceitful. “There were stories everywhere of rapes and robberies and sudden and vicious visits on out-of-the-way premises. Unless you were a witness how could you that what was true”. With the benefit of history however the reader knows not only the fate of the Native American tribes but also that this conflict will soon be usurped by another; the Civil War.

The novel is frequently very violent yet is line by line with a soft dreamlike quality that makes this such an unusual novel. Days Without End is surely one of the best novels of the year and deserving of a place on every bookshelf.

 

 

 

 

The Restoration of Hope – The New Theatre, Dublin

The Restoration of Hope

The Restoration of Hope – The New Theatre, Dublin

Writer: Philip St John

Director: Matthew Ralli

 

The Restoration of Hope is The New Theatre’s pre – Christmas offering for 2017 and it is an interesting choice. It has one of the most unusual plot lines to grace the stage this year.

The action begins in an office on the quays. A man walks in singing a medley of Christmas songs and he sets about decorating his office with tinsel. The festive cheer doesn’t last however when out of the blue a drowning woman appears. Standing inside a red triangle is the newly deceased Hope Whyte, played by Jody O’Neill. In shock it takes her a few moments to realise that she is no longer on Dun Laoghaire pier, and is instead face to face with a strange man wielding a Bounty bar.

Partly inspired by the Faust legend Hope is given the chance to be restored to life, for a limited period of time, but only if she commits to a blood soaked contract. Working with her mentor Larry McGraph, played by Nick Devlin, Hope has to decide what another shot at life is worth and whether she is the sort of person who can take that step. Added in to the mix is demon Luca, played by Shane O’Regan, who is out to capture as many souls as he can. Hope is not a normal victim; she is a single minded business woman who is prepared to negotiate even this devilish pact.

There are moments of humour throughout and the play alludes to the larger issues of the day at different moments. This individual story offers an insight into the wider issues of power, authority and revenge. At times The Restoration of Hope is dark and wicked, with it’s tongue firmly in cheek. Much of the play is a two hander between Devlin and O’Neill who bounce off each other and expose each others fears and weaknesses.

Carl Kennedy’s sound design works very well throughout. The audience enter the theatre to the sound of a Christmas theme with a dark undercurrent twinkling in the background. Lights and careful staging are used at times to create atmosphere and momentum. A driving scene is a particular pleasure. Similarly, although sparse there is a good use of props throughout (look out for the sword!).

This is the second part in The Eerie Trilogy by playwright Philip St John but it is not necessary to have seen The Temptress as The Restoration of Hope stands alone excellently. This supernatural tale is also a great anecdote to the sentimentality that predominates at this time of year.

 

Runs Until 16th December 2017.

 

Co – Produced by Speckintime and High Seas Productionss, in association with Mermaid Arts Centre and The New Theatre

Who Will Carry the Word?

Who Will Carry the Word? – The Complex, Dublin

Director: Cliodhna McAllister

Writer: Charlotte Delbo

 

Blacklight productions present the Irish premiere of Charlotte Delbo’s play Who Will Carry the Word? This play, and the playwright, are criminally under known and this offers an opportunity to bring Delbo’s experiences and writings to a whole new audience.

 

Who Will Carry the Word? draws on Delbo’s wartime experiences as an active member of the French Resistance, who along with other members of her brigade, was taken prisoner and eventually sent to Auschwitz. Delbo and her fellow comrades had prepared for the thought of prison and even torture, but nothing could prepare them for the reality they were about to find themselves in. This was a place where, Delbo tells us, truth, certainty and all past understanding no longer had any meaning. The only question left, was whether to try to survive, or to die. For some suicide was the only right, the only choice they felt they had left. For others the need to survive outweighed all of the horror. After so many deaths it became essential that their experiences, their voices, could be heard, and given meaning. For these resistance fighters the act of resistance didn’t end with their capture.

 

This is one of the few times that a play might benefit from being performed on a smaller stage: to emphasise the feeling of claustrophobia, of closed doors and no chance to escape. The large open space of the stage invited the audience in, however it meant that the action was at times spread too far apart, with key moments occurring to the left or right of the audience’s viewpoint. A large all female cast pull together to imitate standing at roll call, in straight lines, unable to hold onto each other. For the rest of the time only several actresses are brought to the fore. For many of us this will be our first time hearing about the female experience of Auschwitz.

 

Sound and lighting were used to great effect. At times searchlights roam over the women. Each woman straightens her back and looks ahead when caught in the light. Sirens and gunshots are well timed to complement the action on stage. The production improves as it progresses. The philosophies being debated at the beginning become increasing personal. The audience become attached to the characters as more is revealed about them. The final scene is tenderly told and devastating. It would have been easy to over play this section however the director and actors manage to infuse the final moments of the play with honesty and a sad beauty.

 

Each character has a five digit number tattooed onto her arm. An important reminder that they represent real women who suffered this horrendous fate. Although it is not quite possible to say that one enjoyed this production it was one of the most singular and worthwhile theatre going experiences in Dublin this year. This is an ambitious production that attempts to tell a difficult story and it can only be enhanced as more and more people take the opportunity to see Who Will Carry the Word?.

 

Runs Until 2nd December 2017 at the Complex, Dublin 7. Running time 1hr 40 mins.

 

 

Jo Brand Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down

Jo Brand Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down Review

Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down is the follow up to Brand’s successful Look Back in Hunger. Although I missed the first instalment of her life story I have read and enjoyed each of her novels and love Jo Brand as a person and comedian. With each novel her writing has become increasingly fluid and engaging. So how did Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down measure up?

The book begins with an author’s note stating that it is more a collection of memoirs rather than a transitional chronological life story. I probably should have paid more attention to this as it would have helped me to contain my expectations.

Brand picks up the story from Look Back and tells the reader about her journey through comedy clubs, open mic spots, festival and finally TV. As she tours she picks out the best and worse of each situation to share with the reader. It improved as it went along and increased in detail. The first section about gaining prominence on the comedy scene lacked detail and contained too many lists and point by point paragraphs. Although the title of this and Look Back both reference size and food there is little of this mentioned in here except for a retelling of a very funny run in Jo had with TV stylist Trinny and Susannah. This section alone made the book a worthwhile read.

Perhaps one of the best recommendations is that I have already had several people asking to borrow the book. It seems there is a Jo Brand fan around every corner. She guards her family’s privacy, with only a few images of her husband and daughters. There seemed to be a constant difficulty here in that she wanted to write a book but without giving much of herself away. There are moments where she reminisces on holidays with a group of fellow comedians which gives just enough information to peak ones interest but too little to actually tell you anything.

I really enjoy her sense of humour and would have enjoyed the chance to get to know her better. One probably gets to know more of her from her documentaries, game show appearances and charity work with this book being a nice accompaniment.

 

Jo Brand, Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down, Headline Review, April 2011, Paperback.

Victorian Freshers Guide

First Written for Headstuff.org

Arthur John Story’s Do’s and Don’t’s for the Victorian Fresher

 

In 1893 a new guide for freshers began to circulate at St. John’s College, Cambridge. It was authored by ‘A Sympathiser’, later identified as Undergraduate Arthur John Story. Story was an Undergraduate at St John’s from 1893 to 1896 according to Cambridge University alumni records. If so it is unusual that he would write this guide as a new student himself.

Freshers guides are nothing new and in September each year students will be inundated by advice, listicles and articles telling them what their time at University will hold for them. As we saw in a previous article they are known to date back to 1660. This 1893 guide however differs in many ways from James Duports’s guide; primarily in the way in which it deals with women and class.

It is taken for granted now that in Ireland and the UK women enter higher education. In fact statistically more women than men both enrol and ultimately graduate from University. According to the Higher Education Statistics Authority in the 2015 intake there were a total of 1,288,680 women and 991,670 men enrolled in UK Universities[1].

For Strong however, things were very different. He references women in terms or romantic liaisons or landladies. At one point he states: “Don’t, if you are in lodgings, get too familiar with your landlady’s daughter, as she is probably more clever than you. With other men’s landlady’s daughters you may be less particular, but even then – Take care!”. Not exactly the most gallant behaviour! As much as it is tempting now to laugh at such a “don’t” it does show us that for Story and his intended readers there seems to be a clear divide between women he viewed as being ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’. It also shows a desire to make life as easy as possible for oneself; to avoid trouble where possible.

Throughout the guide Story shows no thoughts of seeing women as fellow students even though women were allowed to study from 1869 onwards. However they were not considered to be full members of Cambridge University until 1947. At this time women had to enter female only colleges. It wasn’t until 1972 that traditionally male colleges began to allow women to enter. There are still women only colleges affiliated to Cambridge, such as Newnham College, Murray Edwards College (previously known as New Hall) and Lucy Cavendish College. There are no longer any male only Cambridge Colleges.

As well as being male, to be considered a full student, another entrance prerequisite was that students be a member of the Church of England. This applied to all Oxford and Cambridge colleges in the nineteenth century. According to the British Library a handful of non – sectarian colleges opened in England during this time. These included London University in 1836, Durham University in 1832, Owens College in Manchester in 1851 and Birmingham University in 1900. This rule was taken seriously. In 1811 poet Percy Bysshe Shelley anonymously published a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. Soon however he was identified with the writing and called upon to deny his authorship. When he refused to do this he was expelled from Oxford University.

As the guide goes on the different social status and treatment of women is further explored. “Don’t take the girl from the Tobacconist’s or Confectioner’s home. You gain nobody’s respect by so doing, and the girl’s only motivation is to encourage a good customer” Story warns. This is followed by “Don’t by any chance speak to girls without introduction. However innocent may be the motive, such practices are the worst distraction a student can foster. We know that it is only natural that a man should require ladies’ society, and that if he cannot meet ladies of his own station in life, he is driven into less desirable circles”. Here women and status are intimately linked. Story makes it clear throughout his guide that although it would be unsurprising for students to pursue women, it would not be desirable for them to court relationships with women of a lesser status. Cambridge still has a reputation as being a middle and upper class town, having produced fourteen Prime Ministers for example. This image would have been more acute before student loans, grants and state education to the age of eighteen. The Victorian era saw a revolution in education. For the first time it became law that all children, male and female, must receive elementary schooling but only until the age of thirteen.

In contrast to this Story also advised students to be mindful of their position: “Don’t let your residence in Cambridge cause you to assume superiority over other less fortunate.” He also goes on to tell Undergraduates that they should not crowd the streets and prevent Cambridge residents from going about their business. (“We have often been surprised to see Undergrads walking four-a-breast and jostling all comers, even ladies, into the gutter.”) From reading the guide one can argue that Story felt he and his fellow Undergraduates were socially, and usually economically, superior, or more advantaged than their fellow citizens. However, it was important that one should not let this attitude shine through. It is interesting to think that these “Don’ts” were considered useful for new students to know, suggesting that previous students had made these errors.

On a different note attitudes to alcohol appear to have changed over the centuries. Whereas clergyman Duport warned to students to stay away from alcohol and tobacco Story has very different offerings on the subject. In a piece of advice that could have been written for a freshers guide today Story opines: “Don’t attempt to keep every brand of wine under the sun. Most Undergrads cannot distinguish ‘Bordeaux’ from ‘Burgundy’ if served in a decanter.” Never a truer word uttered.

[1] https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students

King of the Castle

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Dublin Theatre Festival: King of the Castle – Gaiety Theatre, Dublin  

Writer: Eugene McCabe

Director: Garry Hynes

There is always excitement in the air when Druid stage a new production. For the 2017 Dublin Theatre Festival they are presenting Eugene McCabe’s play King of the Castle at the Gaiety Theatre. Often described as an unsung Irish classic King of the Castle has the potential to be an excellent addition to the festival programme.

Written in 1964 there is something about Eugene McCabe’s play that makes it feel as though it could be much older. The themes of whether to leave Ireland and try one’s luck in Canada or elsewhere, or whether to stay and try to write out one’s name on the mountains is one that reverberates throughout Irish history.

In this domestic rural drama we meet ‘Scober’ McAdam and his much younger wife Tressa in the middle of a working day. Married for three years their relationship is childless and frustrated. ‘Scober’ has become successful through greed and exploitation. Slowly gathering up land until he is now master of the big house. He is now King of the area. But he finds himself King of an eroding way of life. Good men are leaving and women are not automatically stuck still in the place they were born. It is nearing the end of the era of the ‘big house’ dominating the local economy and social life.

When one farm worker, Maguire, asks Tressa ‘what is a woman for?’ it sets in motion a series of events that takes the audience into the core of this marriage and shine a light on the uncertainty of masculinity, sex and marriage in a changing world. For a man used to being able to buy anything he wants, will ‘Scober’ be able to turn his situation into an easily solved financial exchange?

At its core there is something very sad and quite savage about King of the Castle that provides grist for the plays dramatic narrative. Celebrated director Garry Hynes argues that it ‘is very much a play of its time but the central themes still resonate today, being steeped in a world of patriarchy and religion that invades the personal and the intimate’.

Runs Until 15th October 2017 | Image: Contributed