(Penguin, 209pp, £7.99)
This novella has been atop our bestseller lists at the bookshop for some time now, so I thought I'd better give it a try. It was shortlisted, along with several other short novels such as On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip (more on the latter later), for last year's Man Booker, and shares with those two at least the frustrating quality of being better by a long way than the novel that won, Anne Enright's The Gathering, which I found dreary and shapeless.
The book opens with a lively address to a reader who is gradually characterised as an American man in a suit, supposedly engaged in conversation with Changez, a Pakistani national educated at Princeton and eventually spat out by a wealthy American business consultancy firm. The setting is Lahore, and each chapter generally begins with Changez's comments on the changing scene around them as dusk falls, and the food to which he is introducing his new acquaintance; it then continues with his narrative of the past. Hamid has done well with his form-content relationship, and limited the amount of time to be narrated to about a year, limited further to Changez's career, an ongoing romantic saga with a troubled Princeton friend, Erica, and his changing attitudes to Western culture. Indeed, many of the review quotations on the back of my paperback edition comment on how "spare", "taut" and "sharp" the book is: there are no swathes of description or attempts at anything other than what seems to be an earnest relation of his activities. The prose is readable, entertaining and (surprisingly at times) sympathetic: I was taken especially by this passage (at page 179):
If you have ever, sir, been through the breakup of a romantic relationship that involved great love, you will perhaps understand what I experienced. There is in such situations usually a moment of passion during which the unthinkable is said; this is followed by a sense of euphoria at finally being liberated; then comes the inveitable period of doubt, the desperate and doomed backpedaling of regret; and only later, once emotions have receded, is one able to view with equanimity the journey through which one has passed.This seems beautifully unembellished and accurate, and yet carries at the same time an air of dismissal, perhaps because of the semi-colons and the slight pomposity of the language. Perhaps the speaker is belittling his own emotional journey compared to the ideological overhaul he has experienced simultaneously?
The tone of the book builds beautifully to the end, but it is in fact the end that I found almost unbearably frustrating. I don't often think that books ought to be longer, but in this case I think another 50 pages would have done this one good. The last chapter reveals so much in such a short time, suddenly condensing the passage of a few months, and only in the last page revealing the triumphant twist, that I was unable to reconcile the ominousness of the previous chapters with this ending: I was expecting something subtler and, if I'm honest, more carefully handled. The section after Changez's return to Lahore seemed bunged in, if you like, and tacked on, less precise in its detail and apparently in a rush to reach the end. This is a shame since the earlier scenes, and especially the characters of Wainright, Changez's boss, and Erica, forever in love with a sweetheart who died very young, are vivid and convincing. I found far more satisfaction in the end of Erica's story than that of Changez (and of the whole book), which meant that I came away less happy than I have from far worse books with better endings. Read it, is my conclusion, but take your time getting to the end and enjoy what comes before.