Having been an expat myself, I do quite enjoy a good piece of literature that focuses on the subject. I’m a massive, raving Graham Greene fan and I always think of him when I consider what makes a good expat book. He weaves a gritty, witty tale, and my favourite: The Quite American, is set in Saigon, which is also where I spent my own period of exile as an expat. I am going to save my analysis of that particular novel for another day because for now I would really like to focus on two novels of the expat genre that I just happened to read consecutively (also, while on holiday!) and my thoughts of them.
First, I took up Snowdrops by A.D Miller, which my mum thrust on me when she realised that she had accidentally returned the book I was planning on taking with me on the plane to the library. I feel that it is necessary to point out that I didn’t choose this book after having been swayed by the blurb, the cover or the quotes from good reviews. One in particular stood out: ‘Reads like Graham Greene on steroids.’ Yes, indeed, I do love Graham Greene! The steroids part I was less sure about but I assume they meant that the writing is a bit more muscled and good at lifting weights. Interesting wording but it was taken from a Daily Mail review so what can you do.
Snowdrops centres on Nick, a lawyer who lived in Moscow and did a few suspect things after being seduced by the young and sexy Masha. Nick is 38 to Masha’s 24/5 and their relationship is the main theme to the novel. I quite liked that it is structured as if being a confession to Nick’s new fiancé but overall I found that the story itself did not live up to its promise, and I found the end quite underwhelming. Miller is a great writer of description, but his characters fall a bit flat and I would not dare to say that his writing is comparable to Greene’s. Like in The Quite American, the aging expat man falls for a much younger, stunningly beautiful ‘native’ woman who offers up her body eagerly while she remains emotionally mysterious and unknown. Maybe it’s because I have spent some time observing this sort of relationship in Vietnam, but I find this distasteful. As a young woman myself, I do not actually like being privy to a man’s psyche when it comes to this sort of thing, as it suggests that men are so weak that they can be manipulated completely by the promise of sex and despite lots of things, I don’t actually want to think the worst of men. The scene where Nick and Masha consummate their relationship for the first time, I found particularly jarring. During a dinner date, where they are accompanied by Masha’s friend Katya, they refer to a trip the girls had taken to Odessa. They offer to show Nick the pictures, which incidentally happen to be on Katya’s phone.
“The next was just Masha. It showed her taking a picture of her reflection in a wardrobe mirror: she was standing with one hand on her hip, the other hand holding the phone so it obscured a quarter of her face. In the mirror she was wearing red bikini knickers and nothing else.
I sat back in my chair and asked whether they’d like to come to my apartment for some tea.”
Urgh. I will not criticise the writing style for this episode, it’s effective and concise. But damn, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It screams about the visual power of appearance that a lot of us women try and deny, and shrinks the man down to a slave of his libido (possibly the whole point of the narrative.) The rest of the plot comes secondary to the representation of sexual power play in their relationship, which is why I found the actual point of Nick’s confession underwhelming.
Moving on, the second book that I attacked during my holiday was Deborah Rodriguez’s The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul. Set in Afghanistan, it centres around five women: two Americans, two Afghans and one Brit. The main protagonist is Sunny, a woman from a backwater town in the US, who had originally moved to Kabul with her boyfriend and then started up a coffee shop. Halajan is the owner of the building, Yazmina is a victimised widow who is rescued from destitution by Sunny, Candace is an ex-wife of an ambassador and a fundraiser, and Isabelle is a freelance journalist. Each woman plays a different role in the story, and the way they are linked together can be at times, both endearing and frustrating. The Little Coffee Shop is nothing like The Quiet American. It is not a thriller, does not have one central protagonist and does not depict a central interracial relationship. However, it does have a key theme of romance, where several of the characters get their happy endings, although it is offset by a tablespoon of tragedy.
I had a quick look on Goodreads (my 2014 reading target is 60 books. I’m 25 in. Just thought you’d like to know…) and I was surprised by the cutting reviews that Rodriguez received. Most of the criticisms were that it was a bit twee, read like chic lit and was not as good as Khaled Husseini’s own depictions of Afghanistan. I will go ahead and say that I partially agree with all those claims but I would go further and suggest that they do not make it a bad book. I always wonder how much the fact that the author is female affects the editing and marketing of the book. The Little Coffee Shop has certainly been put up as chic-lit, just based on the title and the front cover, which has a similar style to lots of other pieces of chic-lit that are out there. It also shares the theme of female friendship and has a happy ending involving weddings and reunions.
NOTE: Now, I will be an interactive narrator and admit that I just had to fight the urge to start my next sentence with: “Despite this…” What’s wrong with happy endings and stories about friendships? I feel that we almost always dismiss these themes as non-serious, but what makes them not as effective as thrillers that are marketed as being very serious. A question for another day.
The Little Coffee Shop also delves into the darker world of the constant threat of terrorism and how it affects the lives of the normal Afghan people and foreigners who are stalwartly and determined to survive. There is a strand that exposes the shame and violence inflicted on women who dare to be different or break the rules and another strand that looks into the attitudes of the older Afghan generation who have had to adapt to the surging levels of religious extremism of the pre and post-Taliban years.
Why have I chosen to discuss these two novels in the same breath, resulting in two rather vague and spacey semi-reviews? The reason for the vagueness is due to not wanting to put any spoilers in as this is not an academic essay. The reason for the comparison is down to the fact that they both are about a foreigner living away from their home country, much like I did. I was struck by the different levels of enjoyment that I experienced while reading them despite the common theme. Snowdrops is arguably the better written and structured, despite the disappointing climax (pun intended) and The Little Coffee Shop is splattered with clichés and rather stereotypical characterisations. However, I actually enjoyed the latter more. I liked the optimism and the sensitive treatment of the Afghan culture. Rodriguez does go into the negativities of life in Kabul but by far the most heart-warming (even if flawed) parts of the novel are focused on Yazmina, Halajan and the other Afghan characters; their attitudes towards trying to live their lives and celebrate their small victories. The narrative might be a bit basic and the foreign characters a little bit contrived, but the overall message is optimistic and relatively positive towards Afghanistan. Snowdrops on the other hand is a cold novel, cold as the easy metaphor of snow covering Moscow for the duration of the major action of the plot (the metaphor being that it blankets the city like Masha covers Nick’s eyes to the truth.) It is a thriller so this is not all that surprising and it is by no means the worse thriller I’ve ever read, but it is just a bit samey. I’ve read about lonely, middle-aged men falling for young, beautiful women before and getting their arses bitten and I don’t feel that this added anything new to the formula. I have also mentioned that I was disappointed by the ending, so it wasn’t saved by a good plot twist. Snowdrops is a novel that strives to depict a general atmosphere of seediness, corruption and negativity and for summarising’s sake, I actually think it needed a little bit of light, like in The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul.