Because life here on the river asks so very much of every day, one of the best things about a vacation—no matter where—is time to read. I read two really good books (and am still working my way through THE POWER and a rare non-fiction, THE DEEPEST WELL) on the planes and train and buses.
My friend Mary recommended Mohsin Hamid’s EXIT WEST and I can’t imagine there’s been a better contemporary novel on the diaspora. The story of a young black robe-clad (pot-smoking, cussing, independent) woman and a vaguely religious man who meet and fall in love in an unnamed MidEastern city. The city could be Damascus, or Bagdad, or…. As the relationship between Nadia and Saeed deepens their city falls into darker chaos. The rebels and the government jockey for dominance, closing down the city’s power and food sources; loved ones are killed, snipers and informers roam the haunted city. At great expense and amidst terrifying dangers, the two lovers leave their city behind, exiting thought a door. That door becomes the first of several more doors throughout the novel’s narrative. In a time where almost everyone is displaced, Nadia and Saeed slip into a fantasy of refugee settlements, one after another: a beach resort where the signs are written in English, Vienna, a palace in London, and Marin California….. Other very brief stories, detailing societal breakdowns, different dangers, loneliness and love are interspersed with Nadia and Saeed’s story in this beautifully written futurist (both metaphoric and realistic) novel. Catastrophe and an unsettling new order are all told in 231 lyrically sparse pages.
Then there was A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, written by the multi-talented Ruth Ozeki. The novel was a fascinating exploration of “now,” its elusive meaning, the impossibility of being within the present while capturing the present. The story is set in Tokyo and on an island in British Columbia. It is a tale about an unhappy teenager and a middle aged writer and that writer’s possible ability to effect/affect actual events. Nature landscapes and their environmental threats, figure into the narrative, as well as contemporary Japanese culture and the practice of Buddhism. There is teen angst, marital angst and career angst. The Internet figures into the plot, as well as a charismatic 104-year-old Buddhist nun. Japan’s great tsunami looms, though it has already occurred. Which—now that I re-read the above—makes A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING sound like a challenging read. But it isn’t. The reader becomes intimate with the Japanese youth subculture, as well as with the eccentric community of characters on a storm driven island off the coast of Canada. Read it: cheer for the troubled teenager, urge the misplaced New York writer to keep the generator and her marriage running while she solves a mystery washed ashore in a plastic freezer bag.