Recommended Reading – March 2017

After a brief period of absence, and after a request from some readers, I’ve put together some more recommended reading for this month,

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The Nix – Nathan Hill
Release Date: 26/01/2017
Publisher: Picador (UK)
Pages: pp. 640 RRP: £16.99 (Hardcover)
Kindle edition available here (£9.49)

Samuel Andresen-Anderson is a stressed literature professor who’s taken to ignoring the outside world by becoming engrossed in online gaming. When a lawyer contacts him to inform that his estranged mother has attacked presidential candidate (and right-wing authoritarian) Governor Sheldon Packer, and has been dubbed the ‘Packer Attacker’ following a social media storm. Whilst he’s been approached to be a character witness, Samuel’s publisher sees an opportunity – rather than sue Samuel for failing to deliver a novel he was commissioned to write over ten years ago, he’s encouraged to write a vicious tell-all about the mother who abandoned him. It’s in the investigation of his mother’s past that the story begins, as Samuel discovers his mother’s journey from her trouble youth in Iowa to the student political movement in Chicago in 1968.

Nathan Hill’s debut is a bit of a beast at over 600 pages. I was quite pleasantly surprised that despite the sheer density of the novel, that he managed to not only deftly switch back and forth between time periods (primarily alternating between Samuel’s research and his mother’s experiences), but manages to incorporate additional characters that he uses to examine the concept of insulating oneself from reality – namely a gamer acquaintance of Samuel’s and a vengeful student, seeking to launch a counterattack against Samuel for calling out her plagiarism and cheating; both can be seen to have invested something in a network of sorts that provides them with some form of gratification, without ever challenging them to move onto something more. Alongside them however, stand figures from Samuel’s childhood – namely Bethany, a concert violinist, and her twin brother Bishop, who provide some of the real emotional gutpunches in the narrative. ‘The Nix’ itself is also something of a character – a spirit from Norwegian folklore that Samuel’s mother describes to him, which supposedly appears as person, though whether it represents a force of good or ill will is debatable. It’s this figure that is arguably ever-present in the novel, and has potentially even guided the course of events in the lives of both mother and son.

For a debut novel, this was impressively ambitious. Whilst I can safely say that I enjoyed Hill’s work, I can see why a 600-plus page novel might put some people off, and it could be argued that some sections could have been trimmed down without having any significant impact on overall narrative quality. The Nix is worth taking that brave step though.

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Exit West – Mohsin Hamid
Release Date: 02/03/2017
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (UK)
Pages: pp. 240 RRP: £15.99 (Hardcover)
Kindle edition available here (£8.99)

The latest release from Mohsin Hamid is a perfectly timed protest novel that follows a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet at an evening class, in what is initially set up as a boy-meets-girl archetype, with the background of a theological state for a secular romance to play out in. When the terrors of the unnamed city they live in begin to escalate, Saeed and Nadia embark on an odyssey that takes them to Mykonos, London, and San Francisco – through a series of one-way magical doorways.  To use magical realism to tackle such a topic as the ongoing refugee crisis and the responses to the crisis is something I didn’t expect, and was blown away by.

Whilst the narrative can speed along at a whip-fast pace, Hamid excels at concisely documenting life during wartime – be it the casual devastation of a bombing, or the sheer joy found in having a shower after journeying for weeks on end. This sense of motion rarely lets up over the course of the novel, and so effectively mirrors the ongoing plights of those escaping real-life terror, that I found myself sitting and mulling over the story long after finishing it. This feels just as much a news reel as it does a novel, and I cannot recommend it enough.

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Spring Garden – Tomoka Shibasaki
Release Date: 26/01/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: pp. RRP: £7.99 (Paperback)
Kindle edition available here (£4.68)

I recently read and reviewed the other main release from Pushkin Press’s collection of Japanese novellas, Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Night Too Brief. A very different sort of tale is found here. The winner of the Akutagawa Prize, Spring Garden follows recent divorcee Taro, one of the few remaining occupants in an apartment block due to be demolished by the owner. Following the death of his father, Taro has largely kept to himself, but over the course of the story, finds himself drawn to the woman in the apartment above his, Nishi, as well as his developing relationships with the other remaining tenants. The two find themselves drawn to a sky-blue house that Nishi first discovered in a photo book, ‘Spring Garden’ – and what it may possibly represent for the both of them.

Before reading Spring Garden, you should keep in mind that it follows a Japanese literary tradition where mood is favoured over plot – for some, this could make Spring Garden a slightly difficult read. What awaits a patient reader though, is a story in which Shibasaki uses a framework of change (with the added element of diminishing time via the impending demolition of the building) to examine loneliness and its relationship with time in contemporary Japanese society. Whilst Taro feels isolated and that his life has stalled, the world around him continues to evolve, regardless of whether he chooses to be part of it or not.

Admittedly Spring Garden does suffer from a slightly uneven structure, and the narrative takes a little too long to find its feet – though there is still a story worth reading here. Whilst I came away feeling that Record of a Night Too Brief is still, in my opinion, the stronger entry in the series, Spring Garden is a solid example of what contemporary Japanese literature has to offer, and I look forward to the next releases in the series.

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