The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid, 2007)

Short, very evocative read.

Simple structure – a monologue. The protagonist, a Pakistani man named Changez, tells his story to a nervous American stranger in a tea shop in Lahore. His story – falling in and out of love with America – is a gripping one. He tells us of his studies at Princeton, his relationship with an American woman named Erica, his high-paying job at a valuation firm where he’s quickly recognised as one of the brightest talents, and then his gradually occurring disdain for the nation, post 9/11.

Changez’s account felt real, convincing. His disillusionment comes about slowly and progressively and as a result we can empathise with his character. The love story between him and Erica is poignant and delicately written, and takes up a large part of the novel, serving as a sort of allegory of Changez’s turbulent relationship with America (but to me it still felt like a touching – albeit heartbreaking – love story in its own right).

It was difficult to miss some of the ironies though. One in particular that struck out to me was when Changez refers to Erica’s father’s tone (he makes some rather arrogant comments about Pakistan’s political problems) as having a ‘typically American undercurrent of condescension’. This felt a little hypocritical, considering his lofty manner of speech and pompous narrative throughout when addressing the American stranger who sits opposite him. But this, I think, was the point.

An intriguing novel, to say the least, and one that forces the reader to confront uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

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Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger, 1951)

The Catcher in the Rye is a book that I think will always be relatable. The sense of hopelessness that persists in its pages drowns the reader in total despair and disillusionment at the adult world. Through the mind of the narrator and protagonist, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield, we too observe our surroundings with increasing distaste and disenchantment.

I first read this when I was eighteen or nineteen, and I haven’t stopped reading it since. I don’t think I could have picked it up at a more appropriate time. When I began to identify with the bleakness of Holden’s musings, it felt somehow significant. The somewhat polarising nature of the novel, it seems, comes from the fact that you’ll either identify with Holden, or you won’t.

Holden is not a child but not yet a grown-up either. This is a period of time that everyone has experienced and to an extent, never stops experiencing. For me, that’s what makes Holden’s story memorable. It follows his rather spontaneous (and often drunken) escapades over the course of three days, after he’s expelled from his boarding school. His observations and perceptions expose the banality of the real world, and of adult life, serving as a very astute commentary on the ‘phony’ nature of everyday human affairs. I especially enjoy the stream of consciousness style of fiction, but even for those who don’t, this novel isn’t short of dialogue or action. There’s an awkward incident with a prostitute, a confrontation with a pimp, and several other bizarre encounters through Holden’s erratic exploits. The pervading feelings of alienation and isolation, rather than making Catcher a depressing read, force us to see the astonishing beauty in moments of innocence:

I felt so happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.

Here, Holden describes his joy at seeing his little sister going around on a carousel. That’s another thing about Catcher in the Rye: it ‘cuts the crap’, for lack of a better expression. Written in the teenage colloquial speech of the time, it allows us as readers to fully engage with Holden’s thought processes and sympathise with his impressions of the world surrounding him. We are cocooned in his disgust for corruption, and there is a certain comfort to be found in the loneliness of his ventures.

Holden’s attitude remains unchanged at the story’s end, differentiating the novel from other young adult fiction. If there is an overriding message to be understood, it is vague and unclear. But again – this is what makes the book so special. I was thoroughly content at the ending, and was grateful for the lack of dramatic character epiphanies or revelations. There’s no ‘Hollywood-like’ element to the story (Holden by his own admission hates Hollywood), and no real purpose to his adventures. It is simply an account of something that happened to a lonely teenage boy, at a lonely time in his life.

In the Miso Soup (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

My second novel from Ryu Murakami. This gave me the creeps! It was delicious. I love the way Murakami combines the horror/thriller genre with a sort of philosophical quality, addressing fundamental questions of human nature – loneliness, meaning, despair – all within the context of Japanese society.

Kenji is a 20-year-old ‘nightlife guide’ for foreigners who visit Tokyo. He shows them around the sex clubs and hostess bars of the city. His latest client, Frank, an overweight American tourist with disturbing (murderous) tendencies, arouses Kenji’s suspicion from the outset. We accompany Kenji and Frank on their night tour of Tokyo, and through Kenji’s narration, we learn a lot about Japan and Japanese society along the way.

There’s only one really gory part (as in Audition), but when the actual horror begins it completely throws you off balance. Kenji’s state of mind after the horrific event was the most interesting thing to me about the novel – an examination of the human psyche, struggling with questions of right and wrong.

The writing is engaging – Kenji’s insights and curiosities provide plenty of food for thought and reflection on every page and he remains a likeable character to the very end, even though his decision is shocking. The innocent quality of his narration makes him very sympathetic and exposes the extent of the decadence all around him. Having him as a narrator, the environment we are in becomes easier to deal with and there’s some security to be found in his observations, even after he decides to not to act on what he’s witnessed.

My (limited) experience of reading Japanese fiction so far is that novels’ endings are often left quite open, quite ambiguous – you don’t feel the story is truly over. It’s intriguing, but in this case I would have wanted some more questions answered!

Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman, 1996)

This novel, a stand-alone urban fantasy about a hidden world that lurks beneath the streets of London, the world of London Below, consisting of all those who have ‘fallen between the cracks of reality’, was a charming reading experience. Reminiscent of childhood classics like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the other world of this story is much like a Narnia for adults – filled with monsters and saints, angels and knights, and, most importantly, a strong sense of mission and purpose which forms the core of the book.

Richard Mayhew leads a very ordinary, conventional life. A businessman in London, and engaged to a beautiful but demanding woman, it is his kind and caring nature which eventually leads to his discovery of this other London. A single act of compassion catapults him out of his everyday existence, and hurls him into a world that is totally and utterly bizarre, yet, as we discover, equally delightful.  Being a Londoner myself, the joys of meeting an angel named Islington, a mysterious Night’s Bridge whose darkness sometimes swallows up those who cross it, a group of people called the Black Friars, and the Earl of Earl’s Court, were hugely enjoyable and added a new, wonderfully wacky dimension to my conception of London.

Besides of course Harry Potter, fantasy is not an area of fiction I had ever really explored or found myself at home with. But the pleasure of discovering The Floating Market, a giant bazaar (which moves from location to location) where people trade all manners of junk and magical items, was one which was reminiscent of the first time experiencing the moving staircases of Hogwarts. So, even for those who find fantasy somewhat out of their comfort zone, this book will certainly surprise and enchant. My experience as the reader in many ways paralleled the experience of Richard as he slowly fell from the reality we all know (and sometimes detest).

Many times while reading Neverwhere, I found myself marvelling at how the author had created such a mad yet utterly delightful world. The story made me think of me of a huge pot of boiling, bubbling magic potion, filled with all kinds of ingredients, both familiar and rare, waiting to be tasted. Looking forward to reading more of Neil Gaiman’s stuff.