The New Yorker: “The Third-Born” by Mohsin Hamid

September 24, 2012: “The Third-Born” by Mohsin Hamid

As far as I’m concerned, this “story” has two strikes against it. First, it is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel (about the boy in the story) and is okay, I suppose, as an excerpt but unsatisfying as a story. Second, the author uses a second person that strays into the omniscient, and for me fails on both counts. I get that the narrative voice might want to move away from the boy’s consciousness (which is what the author says in the Q&A with Mohsin Hamid), but then why not do it in third person.

As I’ve frequently argued, there really ought to be a reason for second person if that’s what the author chooses, and whether it makes sense depends on the implied narrator. Often, second person is used when the narrator is speaking to himself—either now or at a different time in his life. And that works, sometimes, if, for example, there has been some trauma that has the effect of separating aspects of the narrator—sort of an out of body experience. That doesn’t seem to be the case in this story, although perhaps it is in the novel (but that doesn’t explain the wandering into omniscience). Another way second person is used is the true second person—when a narrator is addressing someone (other than himself). That might be the case here, and might help explain the omniscience, but we have no clues in this excerpt as to who the narrator might be.

But I’ve forgotten the story. It begins with a young Pakistani boy very ill with Hepatitis. He and his siblings and mother live in the country while his father works as a cook in the city. For some reason, the father decides they should all move into the city with him, the result of which is that the sister has to go to work, and then the brother, while the boy remains in school, thanks to his birth order.

And that’s about it . . .

I have to say, this does not make me want to read the novel.

About the author


  1. I agree with your comments about the use of the second person. Just curious: how do you know the boy is Pakistani? Seems like a good guess given the author’s nationality, but it also seems like the narrator makes a point of not specifying.

    1. You’re quite right that Hamid doesn’t specify that the boy is Pakistani, but in the Q&A with him he mentions that he wanted to set the story in Pakistan but then decided to “de-exoticize” it by removing names and place names. I don’t think he succeeded. It feels like Pakistan to me.

  2. I haven’t heard of this one, but it sounds very inretesting. What you say about culture is very important, and I think many americans are so ethnocentric that they cannot see that there is two side to every story but also why each side acts the way that they do and trying to come to an understanding of that. Ahhh, its too early in the morning (6:45) to think about such things! Great review.

  3. You have your reasons for not reading the novel. One of them can be your not belonging to the culture he is presenting here. You just read “The Third Born” you didn’t feel it.

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