Neighbours and Other Sweet Inconveniences in A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove was originally published in 2012 and later made into a movie in 2017. Written by Frederik Backman, the book bagged the New York Times Bestseller within a few months of being published.

Right off the bat I’m going to declare that you need to read this book. A Man Called Ove has the odd power of thawing a frozen heart, its story is filled with delicate emotions that you are bound to give into fully. It indicates that we all need a little bit of uncalled chaos in the strict order of our lives to feel completely and utterly human. 

The book revolves around Ove, an aloof widower living in a small town of Sweden. He keeps to himself and you’ll find him similar to that principled authoritarian male relative in your family that everyone tries to steer clear off. Other characters that feature in this book are a goofy Iranian-American family, intrusive neighbours, estranged friends, and a cat.

Ove is a stand up guy who doesn’t necessarily understand the niceties of the world. He tends to find everyone incompetent of living up to his standards but there are more layers to him than you would think. And this is what makes the book such a warm and funny read. This is inclusive of the fact that throughout the book, Ove is trying to kill himself in order to be freed from his loneliness. He doesn’t succeed in his attempts as unknowingly, the people (and the cat) around him decide that there are many beautiful years he is yet to see. 

Backman uses a remarkable technique of memories through which Ove recalls his late wife Sonja – who was one of the main reasons for Ove’s will to live. The author describes all the life events that make Ove the man that he is today. The man who has faced insurmountable loss in his life and the final one of his beloved wife acts as the very last leaf. Ove is prepared to end his life and then he runs into a pregnant Iranian woman called Parvaneh, his sweet neighbour Jimmy, and two young teenage boys at the brink of finding themselves. These characters from around the neighbourhood keep interfering with Ove’s plans of ending it all and this makes up to be very hilarious. These friendships pour into the gaps of Ove’s lives and simply provide for him that which was missing: meaning.

The story of the book is beautiful in both its characters and writing. However, as I scratched the surface of the book, a thought clung throughout the time of my reading. This was regarding the social hierarchy that separates the geriatric from the younger individuals and what it does to the former. Ove constantly runs into his ‘irrelevance’ in the workplace, his resentment towards the casual younger generation, the indifference of the healthcare system towards the infirm, and his remembrance of the days gone by where people had more integrity. A Man Called Ove’s cultural distance from that of my own doesn’t stand as a hindrance to the fact that we do live in a society where old age is just as good as invisibility. 

The book was made into a movie in 2017 starring Rolf Lassgård and this doesn’t come as a surprise when I read the book. Backman’s writing can be extremely visual and one may almost question whether the book was written with the goal of screen adaptation in mind. Each circumstance faced by Ove from his youngest years to the present play out like a movie. These events may even seem a little dragged out at certain points but assuredly add to the intensity of Ove’s transformation. 

The book is a slice of life story that showcases how unlikely relationships can sometimes be life giving and a source of undying hope. This book restores the faith that amongst all the hardness that humans have to put up with, authentic relationships always have a way of grounding people.  

I recommend this book to everyone who has faced unforgiving loneliness during the pandemic. Ove’s story is both a reminder and proof that we all need community in our life to just help us get by. 

Falling in Love With a Young Adult Novel – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Eleanor & Park was originally published in 2012 and has won over 20 literary awards including the Goodreads Choice Awards: Best Young Adult Fiction in 2013.

What you’re about to read is less of a review and more of a fangirl gush about falling in love with a book in all its entirety and feeling the emptiness of parting away when it’s all over.

Eleanor & Park is well, about Eleanor and Park- two intense and naive 16 year olds who end up falling for one another even though the association seems unlikely to both of them. Eleanor is the aloof new kid in the town of Omaha and Park is an existing resident. While facing all the strangeness that a new kid does, we are also taken through Eleanor’s unstable household situation, one she dreams of escaping. Park comes across as a reserved loner kid who belongs to a close knit half Korean-half white family. It seems completely justified that Eleanor and Park end up together as they are presented as misfits of sorts in the book, separated from the rest of the kids and their coming together seems organic.

For both these kids going through transformative periods in their lives, it all starts with exchanging comic books and playlists. It all leads to secret meetups and finding a home in one another in a world that might not always be kind to them. Rowell has a brilliant skill to use the simplest of language and yet keep the reader engaged thoroughly. In showing both Eleanor and Park as intense characters, it’s remarkable that the author didn’t forget that they are after all teenagers. She has also portrayed them as sexual creatures who are confused by all the newfound feelings of self discovery. If I am being very honest, I thought myself to be over and above the teenage puppy love that populates stupid Netflix movies and monotone romcoms but this one is completely different. Both Eleanor and Park are their own people as well. They have their insecurities and showcase fragility for falling in love for the first time which is bound to remind the reader of an age gone by. 

The romance genre definitely caters to a certain readership and I do not consider myself to be one of them. I am also aware that the heady nostalgia that romance novels usually provide to its reader isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, Eleanor and Park isn’t just a romance novel, categorizing it as such would be a disservice to its characters who come alive through Rowell. This book showcases a love story of two young adults with a lot of nuance and sensitivity, cutting through all that would normally overshadow each character’s journey when they are in love. Eleanor and Park stands as a testament to the true potential that the young adult genre possesses for readers of all kinds. There is a certain raw emotion to the delicate characters that gripped me through the novel, I kid you not, I finished it in 3 hours. This was a first for me. 

The climax of the book took me by heartbreaking surprise. It even drove me a tiny bit mad for how Rowell decided to end things for both the characters. The conclusion of the book is not completely unforeseen as the reader senses the perilous situation in which Eleanor finds herself.

Apart from the end that might stand as an impediment, there is some racial tension in the book that seems out of place. Park is a mixed race kid whose race seems to have been characterised deliberately yet not treated nearly enough by the author. In the current context, it becomes difficult to not investigate race if it’s a part of anything related to pop culture. I would warn the readers to take this angle of the story with a pinch of salt. 

Eleanor and Park is your regular boy meets girl, meet-cute love story, but it will steal your heart and jolt it. If you’re not in full blown tears at the end of the book, I’d consider myself a pathetic softy. This book is a brilliant gateway into the young adult genre for anyone looking to explore. It is neither a long nor a very heavy read and can be your new relaxing weekend companion.

Home & Humanity in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

Published in 2017, Exit West contains themes of emigration and political refugees. This book was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in 2018 among the many other accolades that it has received.  

Saeed and Nadia are a young couple in a city bordering on conservativeness and modernity. They nurture a relationship on texting and largely avoid talking about their futures together. In their unnamed city, militants take over and residents are forced into curfew and locked down houses where death lurks at every corner.

Looking for a way out, the two tragedy-stricken individuals hear about (magical) doors that prove to be escape routes. With the foreseeable future being both uncertain and dangerous, Saeed and Nadia leave their city behind with a heavy heart that is felt to the reader as well in order to save their lives.

In this manner, they leave their homes, Saeed leaves his father and the city that will house his mother’s grave, Nadia leaves to dust her hard-earned freedom. Two people who never bargained for this destiny leave a territory that with its given unrest was once their safe abode.

We only realize the sweetness of safety when we are miles away from it. Safety shouldn’t be earned but should be everyone’s right. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, such is not the case. Through Exit West, Hamid with his eloquent words and the ability to weave unrelated stories together tells the reader that the human spirit may move through various territories in a given lifetime but the experience of being uprooted is destabilizing.

We don’t just read about Saeed and Nadia, we comes across many other parallel stories where we see stories of both forced and willed migration and a lifelong search for home. These stories lack closure and I was left wanting for more, which isn’t a bad thing. The book raises more questions about human survival in a state of refuge than it provides answers for. 

For Saeed and Nadia, there’s no such thing as finding a base or finding a cozy spot to create a home in. Their only motive is to move through various cities to survive better. Just as I felt that maybe the city they have now arrived in will serve them better, they find another door and don’t think twice before making the move.

Hamid’s decision to build up doors in various junctures of his story, these doors that appear overnight in people’s hallways and elsewhere make the story border on magical realism. These passages can be the cause of great discomfort or delight for the reader. I mean, who doesn’t like secret doorways that can transport you to new destinations within minutes?

Hamid’s decision to do away with a refugee’s actual journey from a volatile city to a relatively safe one by propping up these doors is rather questionable. I was left to wonder whether this decision was made solely to shorten the length of the story or to not let the plot slip away from exploring the experience of finding oneself in strange and often hostile geography.

Gender politics in the book is skillfully explored by Hamid who has reversed normative qualities in our main characters. Saeed is grounded by his morals, attached to his parents, devoted to their care and Nadia is more restrained in emotional expression and denies being shackled by domestic dullness. Despite his brilliant decision of characterizing Saeed and Nadia in this way, these two who hold the pillar of the story fell emotionally flat for me.

In certain points of the story, they become mere bodies moving through doors and I wouldn’t hold it as a hindrance as one understands that living for mere survival can do that to people. Saeed and Nadia go through an unimaginable set of difficulties throughout the book and the picture of their character development is blurry at best. They are not hard to empathise with yet much is left to read between the lines of the characters suffering.

A silence grows between Saeed and Nadia because of the broken world they find themselves in. We see them drifting apart even when we see them trying their best yet deciding that their happiness lies away from one another. It was heartbreaking to encounter this disconnect. I was then led to think that maybe for once, both Saeed and Nadia got to choose their paths and they didn’t even need a door for this.

Exit West is a short 130-page read that showcases Hamid’s skill as a storyteller and the universal experience of displacement. The politics of power that destroy homes creates situations where the common humanity of people is truly put to test. Driving one to ask that unsettling question – Is there even such a thing as common humanity when it comes to survival? Even though the book left me with a feeling equivalent to that of being parched, Hamid’s use of language requires as much appreciation as it can get.

This book is best suited for people who crave heavy reads and find it easy to navigate through the genre of literary fiction challenging the reader’s imagination.