Magical Realism seems to be one of those styles of writing which really divides people. I managed to totally split our shop book group down the middle when I got them to read One Hundred Years of Solitude (and when I say ‘down the middle’ I really mean that one or two agreed with me and enjoyed it – the rest found it odd and irritating) but it is a genre I generally enjoy. It was, however, not the genre I was expecting when I picked up Mohsin Hamid’s latest. His previous works have been experimental in their form so I guess the surprise was that Hamid was working within an existing format – it is no surprise, however, to find that he does it very well. In fact I checked out the main characteristics of the genre and I reckon he has ticked most of them…
Nadia and Saeed are young people in an unnamed city (my feeling is that it is based on Syria or somewhere similar in the area but that feeling would probably change with whatever war was in the news…) who, like young people the world over, meet and begin to develop a relationship. This is dramatically intensified when simmering unrest develops into a civil war, cutting off normal means of communication. Nadia is passionate and impulsive; Saeed thoughtful and more socially/religiously conservative but they are sure they love each other. Probably. When the situation in their home city worsens further they decide to escape.
So far this doesn’t sound very ‘magical’. The realism of the unrest/civil war/atrocities is, well, very very real. The deaths, most of which seem to be civilians who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and described with almost emotionless brutality and the day-to-day problems faced by those caught up in such conflicts are also covered in dispassionate depth. I think this feeling of disconnectedness was the first hint for me of what was to come so when the method of escape being used came up I was ready to accept it. Doors. Black doors. Which lead to other cities, other lives and other possibilities.They don’t all lead to lives of luxury – the ones heading to the affluent West tend to be heavily guarded – but Nadia and Saeed move gradually westwards, through the Greek Islands and London before ending up in California. Of course, realism is still a factor, so when people move via these doors they still meet the same problems refugees face in our own reality: prejudice, poverty, political manipulation. Nadia and Saeed face the fact that their relationship was formed in an almost unreal situation and, now they are halfway round the world from home, they have to find out if it has any future.
I’m not sure if I should class this book as speculative fiction, magical realism or literary fiction. It is all three. It is also a fascinating study of what it could be like to be displaced and how the world could react to an increasing influx of refugees to the West. It is beautiful and scary and well worth a read.