• March 27, 2018


  • Min Jin Lee

    1Exit West

    Mohsin Hamid

  • Judged by

    Ashley C. Ford

Exit West

I lived in Indiana for 27 years. Well, aside from the year I entered kindergarten and lived with my grandmother and her father on his farm in Columbia, Mo. When I think of home, I think of the northeast Indiana city I was raised in, the streets I navigate by instinct, and the majority of my family still residing there. Geographically speaking, I identify as a Hoosier more than anything else. I may have bloomed in Brooklyn, but I am compelled to consistently acknowledge and check in with the Indiana soil that birthed me. Not infrequently, I feel called Home, and Home does not feel like a question. I know the direction, the state, the street, and the house where I am always welcome, and always known within the full context of my life. Before reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, I did not consider my home something that could be lost to me, at least not without me making the choice to have it be so. Both of these novels challenged my Midwestern security, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Ashley C. Ford lives in Brooklyn by way of Indiana. She is (mostly) a writer. She is currently working on a memoir, and hosting Brooklyn-based news and culture TV show and podcast, 112BK. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

What might my life look like without this connection to Home I’ve taken for granted so long? My hope is to never have an answer to that question, but post-read, I must reckon with the possibility. In Pachinko, women are forced to make homes borne of their circumstances. The story takes off with Sunja, a young Korean woman from a proud family, who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant with the child of a man who cannot, or will not, be what she requires of a husband and father. Rather than shame her family, Sunja marries a young minister whom she and her mother nursed back to health from illness. There could be worse circumstances for a woman in her position. It is considered good fortune that this kind man would marry a “damaged” woman, take her with him to Japan, and raise another man’s child. But all of Sunja’s good fortune is just that: chance.

There are few choices in this matter for her. She either leaves her home with a new husband, or brings shame into her mother’s house. She chooses the option most likely to end well, and with that choice, leaves the inn that supported her family long before she was born. She leaves her home with these words from her mother: “A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.” Sunja’s dreams are limited, but she is hopeful that this new journey will be less of a punishment, and more of an opportunity. An opportunity for what? Less suffering than that which she has been taught to expect.

As the story progresses, chance remains a throughline, as abundant as the game the novel is named for. Sunja’s son, Nao, is raised under the influence of both his biological and adoptive father, two men with very different worldviews. Nao’s life is the intersection of chance in more ways than most, and he expresses that complication in his deep need to belong to the only home he knows: Japan.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $3 and Field Notes will match your $3 and donate $6 to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

If I’ve learned anything since leaving Indiana to move to Brooklyn and work in media it’s that some people build their entire lives around the idea of opportunity. Every outing, every conversation, every job, every assignment, etc. They’re all opportunities to get to the next thing. There’s nothing wrong with this outlook per se. I mean, if you’re trying to get somewhere, why not look for every chance to get a leg up? I get it. Still, opportunity isn’t just about mindset. The stakes, or consequences, of a choice must be weighed for every person given the opportunity to choose. Where my next freelance assignment is coming from isn’t exactly at the same level as “Where am I going to try to make a home?” In Exit West, we are asked to consider that last question under much different stakes than most of us born and raised in the West have ever been required to. In this novel, opportunities, chances, new homes; they all lie behind literal doors.

Our protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, fall fast for each other under the pressures of a city in turmoil. Where he is reserved, she is hungry for liberation. While he resides in the home of his parents, as tradition would call for, she is disowned for claiming her independence. Home is something different for each of them. For Saeed, the rules of community or society are appealing when they keep his friends and family close. Mohsin writes of Saeed, “The scattering of his extended family and his circle of friends and acquaintances, forever, struck him as deeply sad, as amounting to the loss of a home, no less, of his home.”

Nadia is not the same. “…She was haunted by worries too, revolving around dependence.” She is a woman who knows what it means to be cast out, and to be forced to make a home for yourself, within yourself. She is afraid of what happens when even that is taken from you. And as a woman in any time so far, her fears are not unfounded. With each door, each new opportunity, and each dream for a life with the potential for a little less suffering, both Saeed and Nadia refine their definitions of Home. And of course, as redefining something so fundamental tends to do, it also forces a redefinition of their relationship to one another.

High stakes and high hopes (given the stakes) course through both novels like an electric current from one end to the other. I was enthralled. Ultimately, I can only pick one book, and so I did. While Exit West was riveting, I expected to love it, and I did for all of its magical realism, luscious language, and transcendent images. The style and subject were right up my alley as a reader. But I would have never picked Pachinko off a shelf and thought to myself, This will be the best book you’ve read in a year. And yet. Min Jin Lee’s gorgeous novel is heavy with history, but equally as heavy in enjoyment. The language moves quickly, but the pacing of the book is slow in a way that feels luxurious. It was my pleasure to read (and re-read) this book.


The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: This is one of those semifinal tilts that really feels like a championship match. As the Rooster has progressed you definitely get a sense of the strong feelings readers have for one or the other or both of these books. I have been pulling for each of them, but ultimately I would have picked Pachinko, too, and for exactly the reason Judge Ford cites—the pleasure it gave to me while I was reading it.

John Warner: And of course, I would go the other way, but such are the ways of the Tournament of Books.

Kevin: I like the way Judge Ford places her decision in the context of expectations. She liked Exit West, loved it even, but she expected to love it. When forced to choose between it and Pachinko, she chose the surprise delights of Min Jin Lee’s novel over the anticipated magic and lusciousness of Hamid’s.

One could easily see that going the other way, right? Judge Ford was looking forward to reading Exit West much more than Pachinko. That could have manifested itself as a bias toward Hamid’s novel when it came time to make a decision.

John: It seems like it takes a supreme effort to avoid expectations when encountering a work, not just books, but TV, movies—anything. On Twitter, I have been periodically airing my campaign to make sure everyone realizes that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a good movie, not (just) because of its problematic take on race, etc., but because the story doesn’t maintain even basic internal integrity. It violates the willing suspension of disbelief almost from its outset and does so over and over again.

The only reason I care enough to be a single-minded a-hole on this particular topic is because I entered the theater with such high expectations, having been assured it was a great movie. Without those expectations, I could’ve shrugged it off, but with them, I’m Don Quixote on a quest, going online looking for my Sancho Panza.

Here we see an author’s reputation having a strong influence on how Judge Ford received the book. I think something similar has been going on with Lincoln in the Bardo, where, in some cases, people’s fandom led to some measure of disappointment. One wonders, though, if Saunders did not have such a font of good will and a well-deserved reputation, whether such an odd and elliptical book could’ve found a publisher, let alone an audience. The anticipation for a George Saunders novel has been building in some corners for more than a decade. People were going to be compelled to give the book a look.

Kevin: There’s a well-known study from a few years back claiming to demonstrate that readers frequently enjoy stories better when the ending has been spoiled for them. I think there might be something to it. Devoted genre readers will even describe the comforts of knowing that order will be restored at the end of good detective story. They can bear to see their favorite character chased into inescapable corners and face almost certain death because the outcome is a certainty. One of the pleasures of reading a good serial novel is that the hero has an insurance policy in the form of the next adventure. I know a writer who decided to end a popular, long-running series and he prepared his readers many books in advance, just to avoid all the Misery unpleasantness.

Years ago I had the honor of interviewing Sara Paretsky, the pioneering author of the V.I. Warshawski mystery series, on stage at a mystery/suspense con. I told her that, as much as I love the Chicago-centric Warshawski books, my favorite novel of hers was probably Bleeding Kansas, a brilliant family drama set in her native state. She told the audience how hard it was to get that book published, how many of her fans shrugged when it came out, and how difficult it would be for her to publish another novel that didn’t have V.I. Warshawski in it. Sure enough, I went back and looked at the reader reviews of that terrific book, and there’s a ton of ridiculous one-star critiques that all say pretty much the same thing: “I kept waiting for someone to get murdered.”

Annie Wilkes is real, John. But so are readers like Judge Ford who are willing to embrace the unexpected. Ultimately, Judge Ford made her decision about a certain kind of reading experience as much as which book she considered better.

Unrelated, Snoop just released a gospel album. It’s good.

John: One of the reasons I don’t review fiction is because I do not possess the ability to translate my experience of reading into a “critical” sensibility. To me, it’s endlessly circular. I like this book because it’s good because it moved me in some way, which is good. What else do we need to know?

Kevin: Now it’s time to make the final Zombie tally. I’m just going to open the vault here and see if Exit West’s exit stage right forces a change at the top. Five and seven, carry the one…

And we have a new Zombie! Exit West ekes out a spot in the Zombie Round over Sing, Unburied, Sing by the narrowest of margins. I don’t have lifetime Zombie stats available to me, but I believe this is the closest Zombie race in ToB history. I can now reveal that Pachinko and Exit West had exactly the same number of tallies, and the two of them led Sing, Unburied, Sing by just two votes. Two votes out of more than a thousand cast, John! Two votes are all that keep National Book Award winner Sing, Unburied, Sing from returning to the field for a shot at a live rooster. Bring that and Jill Stein up next time someone tells you their vote doesn’t matter.

Because Exit West just faced Pachinko, we will move it to the other bracket. This means that Exit West will be back here tomorrow to face Fever Dream, with Juliet Lapidos on the judging stand, and the “Honorary Aldermen of the Commentariat,” Christopher and Drew from the excellent So Many Damn Books podcast, taking on commentating duties.

You and I will return on Thursday, John, as the Pachinko juggernaut meets an appropriately undead Lincoln in the Bardo. Joseph Fink of Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead, and I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats will have the final say over which of those novels makes it to the championship.

2018 Tournament of Books Merch

New 2018 Tournament of Books merch is now available at the TMN Store. As a reminder, Sustaining Members receive 50 percent off everything in our store. To find out why we're asking for your support and how you can become a Sustaining Member, please visit our Membership page. Thank you.


Welcome to the Commentariat

Population: You

To keep our comments section as inclusive as possible for the book-loving public, follow the guidelines below. And please keep in mind that we reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments, such as ad-hominem attacks, and may ban users who repeatedly post inappropriate comments.

  • Please criticize ideas, not people. Divisiveness (intentional or not) is a natural result of debates over things we truly care about; err on the side of being generous with the words of our judges and your fellow commenters. As much as possible, let’s talk and debate and gnash our book-chewing teeth with love and respect for one another, our judges, and the Rooster community.
  • If you’re uninterested in a certain line of discussion that may be coming from an individual user, you can block them within Disqus to hide their comments; they won’t know you’ve done it, though they’ll still see your posts.
  • While it’s not required, you can use the Disqus <spoiler> tag to hide book details that may spoil the reading experience for others, e.g., “<spoiler>Dumbledore dies</spoiler>.”
blog comments powered by Disqus