By Anya Shukla
I will confess that I always start a BIPOC book out with good intentions and a solid attention span. But as the week drags on and my Starbucks shifts pile up, I find myself less focused on understanding what I'm reading and a little more interested in churning through the last few chapters so I can hit my self-imposed deadline. This time, however, the elevated level of prose in “Moth Smoke” forced me to pay attention all the way through. This is an adult book for adult people. English nerds (myself included) would have a field day with this one.
Review: Published in 2000, Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, “Moth Smoke,” positioned the author at the forefront of literary innovation. Set in the glittery, immoral world of Pakistan’s elite, “Moth Smoke” chronicles the downfall of Darashikoh (Daru), a banker who gets himself fired from his job. This event precipitates a self-destructive spiral that culminates with Daru having an affair with his best friend’s wife and being tried for murder. Using intense, visceral prose, Hamid describes how corruption contributes to Daru’s unraveling while simultaneously recasting Pakistani high society as complex and dynamic. Rating: 4.75/5.
What I Loved: The writing. Remember two weeks ago when I said that “The Marrow Thieves” had excellent prose? "Moth Smoke" is “The Marrow Thieves” 2.0: Super-Duper-Fabulous Writing Edition. I was drawn in from the first paragraph: “My cell is full of shadows. Hanging naked from a wire in the hall outside, a bulb casts light cut by rusted bars into thin strips that snake along the concrete floor and up the back wall. People like stains dissolve into the grayness” (pg. 23). This novel has underdog boxing metaphors! Moth- and candle-related symbolism! Purple prose that makes you feel like a serious intellectual! It's ALL THERE.
The crème de la crème? The pacing. Not just anyone can paint such a vivid picture of character self-destruction but Hamid DOES IT SO WELL. When Daru gets down to his lowest low - to the point where he's willing to rob a store and kill someone - we, surprisingly, completely understand where he's coming from. Like, “yeah, I get why this guy would have an affair with his best friend's wife. Wow, this fellow is kinda morally degenerate, but I feel for him.” Hamid slowly, carefully builds this compelling character up over the course of 400 pages, feeding us little nuggets of information to help us understand Daru better. I appreciate that.
Beyond the near-perfect prose, I also saw Pakistan from a new perspective. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, I have been told by the media and extended family members that Pakistan is a distinct, scarier country than my parents' homeland. Just based on what I learned in “Moth Smoke,” however, the two don't seem all that different. (This book also made waves when it was published in 2000. Other novels had painted Pakistan as a backwater country rife with poverty, but Hamid tore down that stereotype with his Fitzgerald-esque portrayal of Lahore.)
What I Didn’t Love (contains spoilers): The one slightly sour note came with the final plot twist. We know from the start of “Moth Smoke” that Daru's on trial for killing a young boy. Around the middle of the book, we start to suspect that Daru has been framed. By the almost-end of the book, however, we’re given another option: for about 10 pages, Hamid leads us to believe that Daru took someone’s life himself. I'm shook for maybe two minutes. Because then, boom: we're in the murder trial, and it turns out that we were right the first time.
I would have liked a tiny bit more space between the suspense-building of oh-no-Daru-actually-killed-someone and the final reveal of Daru’s murder trial. There isn’t enough time for me to fully reject my old assumption about the murder before I discover what actually happened. The pacing and character development in the rest of the book was so spot-on that this one incident jarred me.
Additionally, “Moth Smoke” gives me “The Spectacular Now” vibes; both novels explore addiction and how it can slowly destroy lives. After reading “Moth Smoke,” just like after reading “The Spectacular Now,” I felt heavy and dispirited. Drug abuse is a difficult topic to read about, and I disliked seeing Daru become a shadow of the person he used to be. Obviously, the plot necessitated this character development—so I'm not criticizing the novel here—but this book just affected me in ways I didn’t expect.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads Because Hey, I Like Secrets: “Secrets make life more interesting. You can be in a crowded room with someone and touch them without touching, just with a look, because they know a part of you no one else knows. And whenever you’re with them, the two of you are alone, because the you they see no one else can see” (pg. 93).
Up next: "The Fifth Season" by N.K. Jemisin!