BOOK REVIEWS

Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer

“After nearly a decade of delirious revenge, rations, war, and death, we saw the world in shades of blood.”

In Man of My Time Dalia Sofer makes a fascinating and unsettling inquiry into morality. The novel is centred on and narrated by Hamid Mozaffarian. When Hamid, a former interrogator for the Iranian regime, travels to New York he reconnects with his younger brother, Omid, who he hadn’t seen or spoken to since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As the day passes Hamid finds himself looking back into his past, tracing his history with his family and his country.

“The point is that in the autobiography there is a time-honored tradition of redemption and repentance, which is a concept dear to all: towbeh for Muslims, teshuvah for Jews, penance for Christians—who doesn’t appreciate a good metamorphosis story, a passage from wickedness to virtue? Even the contemporary secular tale, say, of the disillusioned drunk or the wayward hustler, hasn’t escaped this familiar trajectory, of darkness to light, anguish to liberation.”

From the very beginning readers will be aware of Hamid’s dubious morals. To label him as antihero however seems inadequate as Sofer’s protagonist challenges easy definition. He’s capable of betraying and self-betraying, of committing reprehensible acts and of shirking accountability.
As Hamid revisits his childhood we are shown contradictory episodes: at times Hamid seems like a sensitive child who is made to feel ashamed of his own fragility, and then we see the same child becoming obsessed with the “demise” of insects. Hamid’s formative years are shaped by his difficult relationship with his father and by Iran’s growing unrest. As a restless teenager Hamid’s unease towards his father morphs into contempt, and he finds himself projecting his hatred towards his father’s authority towards those who rule the country. He becomes entangled with rebels, agitators, and idealists, and seems eager to prove himself to them. When Hamid’s family flee the country during the revolution, he refuses to go with them.
From mutinous teenager (“there was something consoling about being maligned, having a grievance, and maybe even dying misjudged”) Hamid grows into a deeply alienated man who leads a solitary existence. His wife wants to divorce him, he has become estranged from his daughter, and he has parted ways from the man he considered to be one of his only allies. His cynic worldview and the rancour he feels towards everybody and everything (from every generation to Iranians who live abroad to Western ideologies) give his narrative an unsparing tone.

“We were, all of us, funambulists skywalking between the myth of our ancestral greatness and the reality of our compromised past, between our attempts to govern ourselves and our repeated failures. We were a generation doused in oil and oblivion, the city expanding in steel and glass around us, erasing at dizzying speed the alleys of our grandfathers, hemming us in along the way.”

As Hamid recounts his life-story, his growing disillusionment towards the revolution and his generation becomes apparent. His interrogation into his past doesn’t provide easy answers. There are plenty of instance when Hamid seems to consciously choose to do something he himself considers to be wrong. But we are also shown the sway that one’s family and one’s country have on a man.
Sofer’s erudite writing was a pleasure to read. Hamid’s adroit narration provides us with plenty of shrewd observations about his country and history in general. He analyses his past behaviour and that of others. Hamid offers plenty of interesting, if not downright disconcerting, speculations about a myriad of topics.
Through Hamid’s story Sofer navigates notions of right and wrong, good and evil, judgment and forgiveness. Troubling as it was, Hamid’s narration also provides plenty of incisive observations about human nature. The way he describes the feelings he experiences (love was a sweet interruption in the lonely march toward nonbeing) could also be startlingly poetic.
Yet, while Sofer succeeds in making giving Hamid nuance and authenticity, her secondary characters often verged on the unbelievable. We aren’t given extensive time with any other character, which is expected given our protagonist (Hamid repeatedly pushes others away, from his family to his partners and his daughter: “I heard the sound of my tired breath inside absences I had spent decades collecting, with the same diligence and fervor with which my father once amassed his beloved encyclopedia”). However, the fact that they have few appearances made me all the more watchful of those scenes they do appear in…and I couldn’t help but noticing that the way they spoke at times seemed more suited to a movie. What they said often didn’t really fit in what kind of person they until then seemed to be or their age (Hamid’s daughter speaks in a very contrived way).
I also wish that the story had remained more focused on Hamid’s childhood and that his relationship to his mother could have been explored some more.
Still, this was a nevertheless interesting read. Sofer has created a complex main character and she vividly renders his ‘time’.

“What was to be said? Absence was our country’s chief commodity, and we all had, at one time or another, traded in it.”

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee — book review

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“Their words comforted me on many a lonely night and made me feel like part of a family. ”

The Downstairs Girl is a compelling and poignant novel that follows seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan, a Chinese American living in 1890s Atlanta.

The story explores the way in which Jo, alongside other Chinese Americans, are virtually unseen by their society, a society which sees only in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’. Jo is constantly reminded by the people around her that she isn’t a real American. Being a girl further complicates matters, as her future seems to offer few possibilities that don’t involve becoming a wife.
Jo’s upfront narration make her into an immediately sympathetic character. I admired her resilience and wisdom. Time and again she is forced to adapt to the hard reality around her: the people around exclude her, mistreat her, and worse still. After being unjustly fired from her hat maker position she is forced to work for an old childhood acquaintance, a girl who has grown from a child bully (who enjoyed tormenting Jo) into a cruel young woman with a vicious streak (I kept thinking of her as Charlotte LaBouff’s evil twin).
Jo, together with Old Gin—an elderly man who has taken care of her ever since she was abandoned as a baby by her parents—secretly lives below the house of a newspaper family. Over the course of her life she has longed to belong to a family such as theirs but so far has contented herself to observing them. Luckily for Jo, the family is in need of an ‘agony aunt’ and she believes, quite rightly, that she has the skills for the job. By assuming the identity of Miss Sweetie, Jo can address issues regarding race and gender. Her columns of course aren’t well received by all…

There are various interesting plot-lines that make The Downstairs Girl into an engrossing read. Jo is an interesting main character, which makes a change from most YA releases which usually star rather insipid protagonists. Here we have a narrator who you can really root for and truly admire. Her passion for words and great empathy made her all the more compelling.
The cast of characters is as complex as the protagonist herself. I must commend Stacey Lee for making each character into a nuanced one. Rather than condoning the behaviour or qualities of her characters, she allows Jo—and by extension the readers—to see that something or someone might have influenced their actions. She doesn’t excuse their awfulness but rather she allows us to see the many different sides that make up a person’s character.
The setting was almost frightfully realistic (racism and sexism are sadly an every-day reality). There are many western elements which balanced some of the heavier themes explored by the story, and I enjoyed the use of certain conventions of the historical fiction genre (for example, Jo dresses as a man). The novel portrays a particular type of American experience, one that focus on the individuals who are rejected by their own society (for example, Jo’s friends are excluded by Atlanta’s white feminists so form a group of their own). Jo is able to connect with those who similarly to her are marginalised by mainstream society.
Running alongside various other side-plots is the one of Jo’s identity. While I wasn’t necessarily surprised by certain revelations I was still completely captivated by the story and by Jo’s quest for the truth.
The sweet and genuine romance between Jo and another character was a minor aspect of this novel, one that made for some lovely and heartfelt scenes, moments of repose for both Jo and her readers.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this one, especially to those looking for a YA take on western or for those who are looking for a thought-provoking story that explores the intersection between identity, family, and society.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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