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New Yorker Fiction Review #170: "Of Windows and Doors" by Mohsin Hamid


Review of a story from the Nov. 14, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

Sometimes the Fiction Section of The New Yorker serves up pretty light fare. Not so this time.

"Of Windows and Doors" by Moshin Hamid is just about as real as it gets, depicting the struggles of a young man and woman trying to first deal with life and then escape life in their war-ravaged home country, presumably Syria.

I appreciated this story because I, like I'm sure a lot of people, have essentially turned a blind eye to what's going on in the Middle East, other than occasionally reading a news story or stopping to listen more closely when something about it comes up on NPR. I hear names of cities and military actions and numbers of people killed in this or that horrific bombing. But essentially, it might be happening on another world. A story like this brings the carnage to "life" so to speak, in a way that news reports never could, and this is why fiction -- story -- is so important and will never die.

Saeed and Nadia are two young adults who are in love and, under normal circumstances, would probably have a normal courtship and marriage, etc. But all of that gets re-routed when their hometown finds itself in the crossfire between the Government, ISIS, and the U.S., represented by the invisible planes in the sky. Daily, more and more of their city, their friends, their family members, fall victim to the violence and destruction and mayhem.

All the while, they hear stories about "doors" which will allow them to escape to other worlds where there is no violence. At first, in the story, we assume this is fantasy. But after a while we realize this is a sort of Underground Railroad system through which Nadia and Saeed may actually be able to escape to Europe, which is not ravaged by violence. And...they do.

What I really, really liked about this story, other than it's eye-opening quality, was it's structure, pacing, and voice. To call it "stream of consciousness" would be inaccurate, but it has the same sort of effect. There does not seem to be a "crescendo," a beginning or end, as such, but rather a steady stream of narration, a litany of horrors and daily tribulations, mixed with daily mundanities, cycling around and around. The narration, done in this way, matches the way the characters have to live their lives in the midst of the constant threat of violence and death; after a while it becomes routine and just a part of the waking, eating, working, sleeping cycle to which we're all prisoners, whether fighting for our lives every day or not.

One really profound passage/observation comes when the author has to describe Saeed's father's internal struggled as he allows his son and Nadia to leave Syria without him:

"...and what he did not say was that he had come to that point in a parent's life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one's child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down and threaten him with drowning..."


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