“It is odd how the character of a public space changes when it is empty; the abandoned amusement park, the shuttered opera house, the vacant hotel: in films these often feature as backdrops for events intended to frighten […] but I would suggest that it is instead our solitude that most disturbs us, the fact that we are all but alone despite being in the heart of a city.”
This was my first Mohsin Hamid (as I write this I’ve recently finished his latest Exit West) and I was simply blown away. A quiet kind of awe. His words like an old friend returning after all these years. For me, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was brimming with echoes of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, and images of the latter part of last years Man Booker International Winner, The Vegetarian. These were further enriched only days after reading (and loving) Girl, Interrupted.
“It was a beautiful spot to commit suicide, perhaps to run out from between the snow-dusted conifers, to push off from the granite and sail through the air, gazing across at the far bank of the mighty river, where a small house exhaled smoke from it’s chimney, before crashing into the icy current below.”
I’m always going to be a sucker for themes of identity in books and The Reluctant Fundamentalist has identity written all over it. Hamid asks by what/how do we define ourselves; be it culture, loved ones, history, or by our physical traits. There is an emphasis on the body and it’s function – becoming merely just a vessel for the spirit – Erica’s loss of self, her eating disorder and her identity fatally interwoven with Chris. She surrounds herself with people in order to escape herself. Changez too struggles with his identity, living as a Pakistani within America, his conflicted ideals between each country’s way of life which resolve in yet another country, The Philippines where he can pass for a white man and his beard is not disabling as in a post 9/11 America.
I found the contrast between Changez and Erica striking; their search for identity, their own brokenness owing to a loss of self. Erica’s physical loss; her soul-mate, her ghostly pallor and gauntness after denying the vessel her spirit is housed in sustenance and Changez – broken due to America’s nostalgia and assumptions of ethnicity.
“I wondered how it was that America was able to wreak such havoc in the world – orchestrating an entire war in Afghanistan, say, and legitimizing through its actions the invasion of the weaker states by more powerful ones, which India was now proposing to do to Pakistan – with so few apparent consequences at home.”
The scene setting in this novel is fantastic and exquisite. Hamid’s writing is some of the most eloquent I’ve come across and his use of narrative style is just plain hypnotizing. Some have also mentioned a thriller element to this novel and his other works which I can attest to. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, while not classified as a thriller, has a moodiness that pervades its’ atmosphere leaving you a little on edge and keeps you turning the pages. At once I attributed this to the nature of the of the story; the narrator dining outdoors as it night falls with an unnamed American stranger, however, after reading Exit West it is purely Hamid’s writing that conveys this subtle unease.
“Observe the sparks that fly from the coals, angry and red, as our cook fans the flames. It is quite a beautiful sight, you must admit, and with it will soon come – there, do you smell it? – the most mouthwatering of aromas.”
Hamid tackles some heavy themes head on; politics, identity, suicide and I may be a little biased since Changez shares a view of world politics not to dissimilar to my own. And a character like Erica even if only secondary to many other themes is always going to be a winner for me. 5 stars for me.