Since I’ve yet to encounter a book on the Booker prize shortlist that wasn’t worth reading (although not all have blown me away), I thought it would be fun to actually read through the longlist this year. Last weekend, I breezed through the exciting, but not particularly literary, thriller Child 44, and now I’ve finished A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. I’m happy to report that the Booker list has continued to guide me toward worthwhile reading material.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes is one of those books where you know the ending before you begin. In part, this is because it’s based on a real historical event–the 1988 plane crash the killed General Zia ul-Haq, the dictatorial ruler of Pakistan. However, if, like me, you’ve never heard of Zia ul-Haq, the book’s prologue tells you that the crash is coming and that narrator Ali Shigri will survive.
But how does the crash happen? We know that Ali wants to avenge his father’s death, which may or may not have been suicide. We see glimpses of his plan–or plans. We also learn that people in Zia’s inner circle want him gone. And then there’s the crow that shows up in the last half of the book. Why spend so much time on a crow? Is that important? What about the mangoes? Uncle Starchy? Blind Zaira? How does it all fit together?
The narration takes us back and forth in time. Ali is imprisoned early in the book because of the mysterious theft of a plane. Does this have anything to do with his plot? As Ali moves through the justice system, such as it is, he thinks back on the events that led him there. In a parallel storyline, we go into the palace and meet Zia, his guards, his first lady, and others. At first, I found the Zia storyline to be the more compelling of the two, but Ali’s voice grew on me. Frankly, Ali’s sections were, in my opinion, a little too hard to follow at first because so much information is held back. Once I could piece together who he was and have a sense of what he was up to, I found his sections more enjoyable.
I never really felt much of an emotional connection to any of the characters. But although I didn’t care about them as people, I did care about what would happen. The way the plot unfolded made me want to keep reading, just to get answers.
Other reviewers have mentioned the humor in the book, but I must be really dense because most of it escaped me. The story did get almost farcical in the final chapters, but I wouldn’t call this a comic novel. Still, I thought the book was worth reading; just don’t expect a lot of laugh-out-loud humor.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but I don’t think it will stick with me. It’s Hanif’s first novel, and I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with next.
Next up from the Booker list: A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, followed by The Enchantress of Florence by Salmon Rushdie. (But before tackling those, I’ll be taking a break from the Booker and reading On the Road for my book club.)