My March reading was excellent, with a great batch of novels from authors I've enjoyed in the past:
→ EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid: In a city on the brink of war, Nadia and Saeed meet at a night class about product branding. They begin to date as militants take over the city, and the uncertain times intensify their falling in love. Meanwhile, across the globe, doors are opening that transport people from one part of the world to another. When Nadia and Saeed get the opportunity to pass through one of these doors to a safer place, they make the difficult decision to leave the only city they've ever known. The couple joins the flow of migrants changing the structure of the world's cities, and migration changes the shape of their own relationship.
This is a brilliant novel that depicts both the minutiae of two intertwined lives and the societal impact of countless migrating bodies. From the opening pages, I was invested in Nadia and Saeed as characters and drawn into their day-to-day reality, where the banality of emailed marketing pitches mixes with the routine of car bombings and checkpoints. Despite the magical doors, which are introduced with little fuss, this story feels like it could be happening right now, thanks to Hamid's care with details.
While the workings of the doors aren't explored, their effect on migration numbers is thoroughly imagined. Existing inhabitants fight or embrace the refugees, new arrivals establish ways to organize themselves, systems adjust to accommodate growing populations. I was fascinated by the plausible infrastructure solutions Hamid developed for the novel, and I hope our own world will move to resemble those parts, not the ones where people fear and hate each other. I encourage everyone to read this timely and wonderful story.
→ LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders is based on a historical fact, the death of Abraham Lincoln's beloved young son Willie, which occurred just as it became clear how long and bloody the Civil War would be. It's also inspired by a rumor from the time, that after the funeral the grieving president visited the crypt where the boy was interred. Saunders combines historical record and speculation with the supernatural and fills the cemetery with ghosts who witness the events of that night and help Willie through the transition from life to death.
The premise is inventive, but the really unusual part of this novel is its narrative construction. I was a fan of Saunders from the collection TENTH OF DECEMBER, and while those stories are all wonderfully weird in content, they stick to pretty standard forms, so I wasn't expecting his first novel to be stylistically unlike anything else I've read. Understanding how the story operated was a thrilling and unsettling pleasure, so I'm not going to spoil anyone else's fun by explaining further. If you're uncertain about trying experimental prose and want to know more first, check out Ron Charles's Washington Post review for a fuller description.
Saunders does a lot of skillful work in this novel, from pulling off the format to crafting a huge cast of distinctive and memorable characters. It's a moving story involving a good deal of grief and pain, which Saunders handles with his characteristic compassion, while also weaving in a bit of his characteristic humor. I really enjoyed this book as both an impressive writing feat and an emotionally engaging tale. It's not going to appeal to all readers, but if you're drawn to unconventional prose, I highly recommend it. And if you're into audiobooks, note that this one has a large cast of celebrity narrators -- I'm not normally an audiobook listener, but I'm considering experiencing the book again that way.
→ THE BOOK OF ETTA by Meg Elison: This is the second installment in a planned trilogy, after THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, which I adored last year. Since the first novel stood strongly on its own, I was a bit nervous about a sequel, but the new characters and developments in this story made for a compelling continuation. I expect most readers who enjoyed the first book will also appreciate this further exploration of Elison's post-apocalyptic world.
Generations after a plague wiped out most of humanity, killing women at far higher rates than men, the disease still lurks in the population, and women remain a small minority. Eddy was born to the fulfilling life of adventure on the road, where he raids for useful supplies in the ruins of the old world, trades with small towns, and rescues women and girls held by slavers. When he returns home between trips, he despises having to resume the role of Etta, daughter of a respected village mother who can't understand why Etta won't accept the biological necessity of becoming either a mother or a midwife.
Identity and gender are big topics in this novel, and the problem of an unbalanced world presents numerous complications. As Eddy travels between towns, he encounters many different arrangements between the men and the few women. Some are cruel, all are imperfect, and each adds something to the story and Eddy's perspective on the world. (The first book also explored various possibilities, but nothing here struck me as repetitive.) While reading, I was somewhat frustrated by information that was hinted at but went unrevealed for what felt too long, but mostly I stayed intrigued by the story. Toward the end, it gets especially intense and takes a number of quick turns before reaching a conclusion that wraps up major plotlines but also sets things up for the final book.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ At Book Riot, Kelly Jensen explores the approaches to cover design for 1984: "George Orwell's classic 1984 -- a staple of high school classrooms everywhere -- has been holding strong to the top of the bestsellers list for the last few months. I spent a little time looking at covers from previous eras, as well as foreign editions, and I found some interesting commonalities."
→ And Rebecca Romney collects covers for The Handmaid's Tale: "The color red, both an evocative design choice and a key aspect of the narrative, has dominated most cover designs since. Whether the designer goes for something abstract and almost digital in appearance (as in the 2016 Vintage Classics edition) or strews the space with flowers (as in the 2009 Bloomsbury edition), the flash of red is eye catching and ominous."