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Archive for the ‘immigrants’ Tag

Refugees, love and peace   Leave a comment

Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is part parable and entirely too timely.

Hamid’s story follows Nadia and Saeed who meet in an unnamed war-torn country. She is distanced from her family because of her strong desire for personal independence. He lives with his devoutly religious parents. The two fall in love as the world around them crumbles.

Through a series of doors, which conjure images of Alice in Wonderland or Platform 9 ¾ in Harry Potter’s world, the couple escape from one refugee situation to another. The settings include the Greek island of Mykonos, London and Marin, California. They are different and in many ways similar to one another. Of course, the common factor is the large number seeking refuge from countries all over the world.

Although, the narrative is important because the question of immigrants/refugees/asylum seekers is something facing most Western countries, it is also heavy-handed. There is no doubt this is a serious issue with no easy steps toward resolution. Ultimately, the story is less about Saeed and Nadia. They’re simply the vehicle making the journey but the matter of what to do with the influx serves as the passenger.

Hamid’s writing is stark, yet evocative. There is a sense of fear and relief from one passage to the next. There’s a feeling of hope, initially for Saeed and Nadia, but eventually for something larger. Yet, something in the telling of the story falls short. Perhaps, because it’s somewhat fantastical, but mainly because the characters never truly come to life.

Exit West
3 Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2019
231 pages

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The American Frontier   Leave a comment

 

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Years ago I gave myself permission to stop reading books that couldn’t hold my interest. Nonetheless, I still struggle with the idea that once I start something I should finish it. As I slogged my way through Amy Bloom’s Away, I wondered when I’d set it down for good. I never did.

Bloom’s slow-paced story is about the determination of a mother’s love and the sacrifices she endures. It’s also a narrative about immigrants and fitting into not just new environments but adjusting to different customs and expectations.

Lillian Leyb is a seamstress living in New York City’s lower east end in 1924. As she becomes romantically entangled with her employer and his son, her past is slowly revealed. She left Russia where her husband and, presumably, her child were killed. Lillian becomes a kept woman until she learns from her cousin, a recent arrival from the homeland, that her daughter is still alive. Thus begins Lillian’s journey across the  United States including the expansive Alaskan frontier en route to Siberia to find her daughter.

Lillian experiences both the kindness and cruelty of strangers; she’s befriended and betrayed. Bloom incorporates humor and pathos in Lillian’s trek by explaining what’s in store for those Lillian encounters – from her east end companions to those in a Seattle brothel and later a women’s prison in Alaska. Through it all, Lillian remains determined to find her daughter.

Although Away was no page-turner for me, I’m glad I stuck with it. It just took time.

Away
Three Bookmarks
Random House, 2008
240 pages

Unknown but Not Invisible   2 comments

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez is a timely read with the issue of immigration never far beneath the political surface. Yet, the novel isn’t about politics, but people.

Arturo and Alma leave Mexico for Delaware because they want to do more for their teen-aged daughter, Maribel, who suffered a brain injury. They believe she’ll benefit in a better school. They’re not illegals; they have work visas. Each chapter is told from one of the character’s perspectives, some in greater detail than others; only never Maribel’s.

Woven in with the challenges of living in a new land with a new language is the relationship that develops between Maribel and Mayor.

Sixteen-year-old Mayor Toro lives in Maribel’s apartment building; his parents left Panama when he was less than a year old, but he’s never fit in.  From Mayor’s perspective, Henriquez writes: “The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim (Panamanian).”

This sums up the experience of those introduced in the book. Henriquez has created a montage of immigrants: from Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, even Venezuela and Paraguay. These places are all part of the Americas, which is what makes the title so appropriate with its double entendre. In brief, compelling chapters, among those told in Alma and Mayor’s voices, the neighbors share their pasts explaining why they left their native countries for the U.S.A.

The Book of Unknown Americans
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A, Knopf, 2014
286 pages

Tending a Family Tree   Leave a comment

A Good American is not only an engaging tale about immigrants, it’s also a captivating
account of the power of family and community. Alex George’s novel begins as a love story,
which ultimately becomes a chronicle spanning four generations. George starts with the un-
likely courtship of Frederick Meisenheimer and Jette Furst in Hanover, Germany. The uncon-
ventional Frederick woos Jette, a robust independent woman, by singing Puccini from behind
a privet wall; thus setting a precedent for the importance of music in the Meisenheimer house-
hold. The pair soon relocates to Beatrice, Missouri.

Narrated by James, Frederick and Jette’s grandson, the novel is an absorbing examination
of domestic life. The story is abundant with an eccentric cast of supporting characters, rang-
ing from a giant to a midget. And, as James notes, “While we were growing up, so was America.”

Rural America is the perfect backdrop for the Meisenheimer portrait. This is not a glowing
portrayal because the members have their share of faults. Yet these only to serve to make
everyone more believable. As with any family, dysfunction does exist in the bloodline. Its
manifestation simply, and oddly, makes everyone even more endearing. The beauty, and
strength, of the novel is that it is filled with not just one good American, but many. It may
be easy to overlook the concept of America as a melting pot today, but George’s narrative,
even while acknowledging the negative elements lurking in the shadows, reflects the best
ingredients that make this country what it is.

A Good American

Five Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012
387 pages