Mohsin Hamid has consistently shown his genius for using literature to capture the tensions between Islam and the West that play out globally and in individual lives. His latest novel, Exit West (Riverhead, $26), is another example of his spare, elegant writing, and his fearlessness in treading on uncomfortable political ground. A love story at its core, the novel exposes disquieting truths about secular and fundamentalist interpretations of religion, culture, family, and community. Moments of magical realism provide an imaginative backdrop to the story, much of which takes place in a country never named and with doors that serve as metaphorical entry and exit points. A stunning novel.
“History has failed us, but no matter.” When a writer opens her second novel with a sardonic statement like that, you hope that she’s up to the task of making it stick. Have no fear, Min Jin Lee is. Starting in the early 20th century, Pachinko (Grand Central, $27) chronicles the fortunes of a Korean family, first in a Korea under Japanese occupation, then as immigrants in Japan. The pachinko parlor that the family runs while in Japan is a perfect symbol of the kinds of hardships Korean immigrants in Japan face. The gambling establishment is their road to a better life. In fact, it’s the only such road. Perhaps this gives you the impression that the novel is only good as social commentary, its characters puppets. Actually, the reverse of is closer to the truth. It’s as if Lee started with the minutest details of her characters’ lives and the commentary grew out of it organically. When she observes how quickly Yangjin and Sunja have to get over Hoonie’s death, “At his burial, Yangjin and her daughter were inconsolable. The next morning, the young widow rose from her pallet and returned to work,” you feel the hardscrabble life of a Korean peasant all the more. One reviewer has aptly compared Lee to Thomas Mann. This is one book you can lose yourself in.
Winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice, The Leavers (Algonquin, $25.95), by Lisa Ko, is an exploration of the lives of a family of Chinese immigrants. Polly, an undocumented immigrant, is rounded up in a raid on the nail salon where she works, gets caught up in the system, and eventually is repatriated to China. Her eleven-year-old son doesn’t know where she’s gone or what happened to her. She’s just gone. Fostering with a kind, intelligent couple (both are professors) in the suburbs, Deming has difficulty recovering from the trauma and confusion of his early life. The book is timely and the subject important, but the strength of the novel lies in the composition of the principal characters, showing the depth of their humanity, their worthiness of our empathy.