Ali Smith – Summer

Ali Smith – Summer

The seasonal quartet comes to a conclusion with “Summer” which is set in the troubling spring of 2020. Teenagers Sacha and Robert know about the problems the planet faces, not just the virus which locks them down, but climate change, the refugee crisis, Brexit and the unreliability of media and the political class make them ponder about the times they are living in. But it is not only the big issues that trouble the siblings, also the typical quarrels of brother and sister and their parents’ separation occupy their minds. But other times, too, challenged people and nevertheless lead to great outcomes.

Once more, just like in her former novels, not only the ones belonging to the quartet, there is so much in it which makes it really difficult to review. Many aspects mentioned are worth commenting on, in the first place, Ali Smith’s writing, again, is simply marvellous, the way she uses language in this specific novel also moves to a metalevel discussing words and the ability to express oneself also without using oral language. In a times when words are misused to blind and mislead people – some doing this even quite overtly – you have to become even more careful with what you say and easily realise that maybe the language as we know and use it is not enough anymore.

I really adored her characters in this novel, first and foremost Robert, even though he also behaves, quite typical for his age, nasty at times. He is on the brink of losing his childish innocence, clever as he is, he asks questions and investigates and even though only 13 years old, can brilliantly analyse the politicians’ deceit. When investigating Einstein, a mastermind he admires for his scientific achievement, he also becomes aware of the fact that sometimes, people can have two sides at the same time which might be difficult to bring together.

Topics which were addressed in the former parts are now picked up again and thus, “Summer” forms a perfect conclusion. Even with the sheer mass of big problems, Smith’s novel provides hope, especially with the young generation portrayed here. They are heroes and have the capacity of making a change. For Sacha, climate activists, NHS workers and Black Lives Matter protesters are heroes according to her definition:

“I have a vision that the modern sense of being a hero is like shining a bright light on things that need to be seen. I guess that if someone does this it brings its own consequences.”

In her understanding, everybody can become a hero, we only have to start.

Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

A typical patchwork family: mother with daughter and father with son form a new unit after the parents got to know each other through work. For a new professional project of the father, they leave New York and their cosy home for the southern states close to the Mexican border. A very unique road trip of a family which is educating for their young children, but also brings them closer to the hot political topic: thousands of children are on their way to the border to come to the USA. As the family gets closer, the radio news become more and more a part of their life, too.

Valeria Luiselli’s novel was nominated on the long list for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and you can quickly understand why it definitely earned a place there: the author masterly combines fact and fiction, mixes different types of materials to for something new and she has an outstanding capacity of using language.

There is so much one could say about the novel which makes it difficult to make a selection for a short review. The largest part is narrated from the mother’s point of view, a character who is highly poetic in describing especially her family relationships and who thoroughly analyses not only how the dynamics within the family shift but also how they interact with the outside world. I also liked this idea of having boxes in which each of the characters collects things with a certain meaning for them. Then, you have the American history – the past with the stories of the Native Americans which is contrasted with the present and its train of children moving towards the country.

The characters are not given any names, they are just mother and father, son and daughter. They could be anybody. They are you and me confronted with the real world and forced to understand that we live in a kind of multi-layered reality in which you repeatedly have to adjust yourself and your opinion depending on your current point of view and knowledge and experiences. The novel does not provide definitive answers, but it provides you with masses of questions to ponder about.

Atia Abawi – A Land of Permanent Goodbyes

Atia Abawi – A Land of Permanent Goodbyes

The family is at home, even if it is war outside, they still have themselves; Tareq, his younger brother Salim, the girls Farrah and Susan and the baby twins. He respected his mother Nour and his father Fayed and of course also his grand-mother. When a bomb hits their house, only Tareq and Susan can be saved, luckily their father was at work and is also alive. They decide it is time to leave the country, after such a loss, what is it that keeps them still there? But first, they need to go to Raqqa where Fayed’s brother lives who can lend them money. Yet, Raqqa is deep in the Daesh controlled area and going there is highly risky. But this is only the beginning of a journey which hopefully ends somewhere in Europe in peace and safety.

Atia Abawi, an American journalist who spent many years in the middle east as a correspondent and is a daughter of Afghan refugees, has chosen the number one topic in the news of the last two years for her second novel. It is her background, both personal and professional, which can be found throughout the novel; you feel in every line that she knows what she is writing about and that neither the emotions she puts in her characters nor the experiences they make are just invented, but exactly what people undergo. At times, the style of the novel has some traces of journalistic work, leaves the pure fiction, but this does not reduce the quality of the novel at all.

First of all, what I really appreciated was the fact that she does not victimize her characters. Already at the beginning of the novel, they are hit by a major loss, but they keep on fighting and do not rely on others. The risk a lot, see evil deeds committed by Daesh fighters, but still remain human themselves. The part I found especially interesting was Tareq’s time in Turkey. It is not only the large number of Syrians being stranded there and setting up a kind of community parallel to the Turkish, but first and foremost the way they are exploited, how people are trying to make profit from their fate which is annoying. Yet, I guess this is just reality.

It is just the story of one family, however, it represents what many people all over the world go through. None of them wanted to leave their country, none of them wants to live in another country of which they neither know the language nor the culture, many of them believe that those who have died are blessed because they do not have to undergo this. Considering all the negative news about refugees, we should not forget their perspective. Atia Abawi has given them a beautiful and engrossing voice.

Mohsin Hamid – Exit West


Mohsin Hamid – Exit West

The city is already at war when Saeed first meets Nadia in an evening class. Yet, there is still something like an ordinary life. Both of them go to work, go shopping and spend time on the Internet. Their love is not passion at first sight, it develops slowly and as they are falling in love, life becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous in their hometown. Violence becomes a normal factor in their lives and when the war finally arrives also in their quarter, they have to make a decision: do they want to spend the rest of their time together? When Saeed’s mother is killed, Nadia moves in with him and his father. But the situation becomes more and more complicated and so they finally decide to leave and follow thousands of others into a better life in the west.

Mohsin Hamid does not give any name to Saeed’s and Nadia’s hometown, from the information we can find in the novel, I gather it must be in Syria or one of the neighbouring countries. What I found quite impressive was, first of all, how everyday life can be arranged in times of war. People adapt to the situation, find ways of coping with limitations in their freedom of moving around when curfews are announced and can even organise their life around religious regulations ordered by the rulers. When food is limited and even their own flats are not secure anymore, they maintain at least the impression of normality.

The second aspect I especially appreciated was the character of Nadia. Even before the story begins, she is a free spirit, lives according to her own rules and does not let herself be dominated by the men in a man-dominated country. The fact that she as a single woman who lives alone is already impressive, but her real strength becomes only obvious when she and Saeed leave the country and have to rearrange their life in foreign places. In contrast to Saeed, she does not look back and search for familiar people who speak the same language and practise the same religion. Nadia can really adapt to new situations and show her intelligence and capacities of bonding with people. She is not afraid, she has already lost her home country, her family and gave up everything.

Exit West contributes to the current politically most discussed topic in Europe. Yet, it does not highlight the political dimension of the quasi exodus of a whole generation, but focuses on the personal perspective. With Saeed and Nadia, we have a loving couple who leave behind different lives and who struggle in very different ways with their role as refugees. How the citizens of London react to the newcomers could be interesting to look at more closely, just as the development of their relationship over the course of time. The role of men and women in the different countries is also worth another thought. Yet, everything cannot be mentioned in a review, particularly if a novel offers that much as Exit West does. It is also Hamid’s style of writing which contributes to making the novel stand out in the masses of new publications. With a plain, very direct way of narration, the author can hit the reader deeply and hinder anybody from just reading the novel, closing the book and forgetting about it.