Review 1885: Travelers

When I first began reading Travelers, I thought I would be disappointed in it, because the bio said Habila had won several awards for his writing, but I found a misplaced modifier in the first few pages. Can’t help it—I’m a grammar nerd. However, I soon found the novel compelling.

It is structured as six novellas, which are linked by the presence or acquaintance with the unnamed narrator. He is a Nigerian student who is supposed to be finishing his dissertation in Washington when his American artist wife receives a fellowship in Berlin. Their marriage has been suffering since she had a miscarriage, and they see the move as an opportunity for a new start, but while his wife works hard, the narrator seems to be aimless, wandering around Berlin and ignoring his work. He becomes interested in a group of activists living in a squat and taking part in demonstrations. Several of them are refugees from Africa, including Mark, a transgender artist.

In this first novella, we meet Manu, who we learn about in the second novella. As Manu’s family crossed the Mediterranean in a derelict boat, the boat sank and he lost track of his wife and baby son. Every Sunday, he and his daughter search the area around Checkpoint Charlie for his wife and son.

In the third story, Portia, a Zambian studying in England, has traveled to Basel to meet Katharina, who used to be married to her brother David. She has gone there to understand her brother better, a man who always seemed to want to leave home, but also, at her mother’s behest, to find out why Katharina killed him.

In the fourth story, after meeting Portia and traveling with her to Basel, the narrator listens to the tale of a Somalian whom he meets on a train. This man and his son have suffered unimaginable hardships trying to find a place for themselves and their family. However, in a moment of confusion, the narrator loses his identity papers and finds himself incarcerated in a refugee camp.

This novel examines the state of many east and west African countries and the plight of African refugees in Europe. Habila is a master at quickly involving readers in the lives of its many often incidentally encountered characters. I read Travelers for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1325: Exit West

Cover for Exit WestIt’s difficult to describe Exit West. Part embedded in a slightly futurist reality, a small part speculative, part romantic, the novel is mostly a parable. Those of you who know me, know I don’t really like parables and I seldom appreciate magical realism, so this probably wasn’t the best choice for me, but I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.

Saeed meets Nadia in class as their unnamed city succumbs to war. They secretly see each other while a war goes on between religious fundamentalists and the government. As the situation deteriorates, Saeed’s mother is killed.

Saeed and Nadia hear rumors about doorways that can take refugees to other parts of the world, and we take a few side trips from their stories to witness people emerging in other countries. In some countries, the doors are guarded to keep the refugees safe. In others, the governments are trying to keep refugees out.

Saeed and Nadia decide to leave, but they cannot convince Saeed’s father to go with them. They eventually go, emerging first in Mykonos, where they live in a refugee camp, then in London, and finally in Marin County. Everywhere they go, they join swarms of refugees.

Hamid isn’t as interested in the grueling journeys of refugees as he is in the psychological effects of their journeys. Quiet, reflective Saeed has more difficulty adjusting than does the more adventurous Nadia.

Because this is more of a parable, though, the two main characters are mostly ciphers. We don’t really get to know them or care that much about them. Hamid’s lightning glimpses of other people’s lives open up the novel a little bit. It’s a technique similar to that used by David Mitchell, but in this novel it doesn’t work as well. Sometimes these glimpses seem to have little point, although most of them are linked to the doorways.

Aside from the timeliness of this novel (which I’m guessing is what has made it so popular especially with predictions about climate refugees to add to our current economic refugees and those fleeing violence), this novel was interesting but not altogether successful.

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Day 574: Little Bee

Cover for Little BeeLittle Bee begins her story from a detention center in England, where she has been held for two years. During this time, she has been learning British English in the hopes she will be allowed to stay. After another girl seduces a guard, Little Bee is released with her and two other girls, with no papers or money, into the depths of the English countryside. Bee calls the only person she knows in England, Andrew O’Rourke, a man she met on a beach in Nigeria two years before.

Sarah O’Rourke is getting ready to attend her husband’s funeral. He had been depressed ever since that day on the beach. Then, suddenly, he committed suicide. When someone arrives at the door, Sarah is surprised to find Little Bee.

Eventually, we find out what happened that day on the beach—how Little Bee lost her sister and Sarah her finger. Sarah is posed with a problem. What can she do about Little Bee to help her stay protected in England? To the British government, Nigeria is a safe country from which Little Bee does not need refuge. The government does not know or is unwilling to learn that the oil companies are murdering entire villages to get rights to the oil beneath them.

I found Little Bee to be affecting all right, and it informed me of a situation I did not know existed. With all the bad news about various countries in Africa lately, I had not heard mention of Nigeria (at least not in this respect).

A few people have written reviews complaining about the ending. Perhaps they like their endings nicely wrapped up. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I did feel sometimes as if I was being manipulated. In addition, Little Bee’s voice, although enchanting and original, is not consistent enough. At times she is amazingly naive, sometimes convincingly so, others not so much. It is some of her more sophisticated knowledge that occasionally doesn’t ring true with the character Cleave has created and can’t be explained by two years of reading classics.

In any case, it is Sarah’s stunning naivety that is more unbelievable, both on the beach that day and when she decides to interview people in Nigeria instead of immediately contacting a lawyer or her embassy in an attempt to save Bee.

With all these caveats, I enjoyed the book, though, and give it a qualified recommendation.