Title: Exit West (2017)
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Read: 2nd – 7th September 2017
Genre: fiction; magical realism
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“An extraordinary story of love and hope from the bestselling, Man Booker-shortlisted author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing – to fall in love – in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it. Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind – when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world…”
(Synopsis from publisher)
Having read Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed The Reluctant Fundamentalist previously for a contemporary literature class, I at least knew that I found his style very easy to digest and very readable – there’s nothing too poetic or abstracted about it but, likewise, it isn’t too matter-of-fact or plain. Hamid manages a nice balancing act between the everyday and the stylistic, and this is reflected in the plot of his latest novel, as well as the narrative style itself. On the surface level, Exit West opens with a tentative love story between our two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, as they begin to make the first steps to get to know one another in a non-specified city which is teetering on the brink of unrest. The descent into civil war is presented slowly, with insidious differences affecting each of their lives slowly, until the point at which inhabiting the city becomes unbearable and dangerous. It is then that the magical realist ideas of ‘doors’ are introduced to the story – the characters have heard from a friend about someone they know who knows how to get out of the country via a literal door.
“We are all migrants through time.”
These secret ‘doors’ open up in other countries, providing a risky solution for many individuals desperate to escape the brewing war, but the chance that is taken by any character who steps through, uncertain of what they will find on the other side, quite obviously reflects the real-life migration and refugee crises that are affecting the world at this present time. In particular, this brought back strong reminiscences of the European migrant crisis of 2015 when swathes of people (some economic migrants, some asylum seekers) made perilous journeys across the Mediterranean into mainland Europe via boats that were likely unsafe in the hope of reaching a better place than the war-torn countries they were leaving behind.
“In this group, everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was.”
Likewise, Exit West also served as a reminder of the unfair language some press outlets chose to use to describe the crisis, thereby shaping public opinion, as well as the lack of sensitivity or empathy some natives of the countries had towards the newly-arrived migrants. These complicated social and political issues are considered in Hamid’s tale, all circling around the burgeoning relationship between Nadia and Saeed which is tested to the extreme as they start this unknown and perilous westward journey together just as their relationship begins to blossom.
“To love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”
What I liked most about Hamid’s tale was the reality of the situation – from the synopsis you might imagine that Nadia and Saaed’s relationship is going to be idealistically strong in the face of adversity and prove that love is the force that can bring us all together. That is not quite the case in Exit West – it’s more complicated than that in life, and Hamid doesn’t shy away from this when crafting their story together. Similarly, he confronts the very real and present decision many migrants face, as they must choose whether to leave behind older family members who may not be up to making the difficult trip out of the country, even if this may feel like abandonment. Likewise, the ‘doors’ act as a device to illustrate the courage required to take that first step into the unknown territory, and the faith required to hold onto the hope that life in this new country must be better than that you’re leaving behind. I think that that isn’t always necessarily the case for migrants, especially given the reception they sometimes receive from the country’s public and officials alike, but Hamid certainly doesn’t shy away from exploring this aspect of the migrant experience.
“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Ultimately, this is a book I probably wouldn’t have read were it not for the elements of magical realism. Had it been marketed as solely a story about the migrant crisis, I’m ashamed to admit that my interest probably wouldn’t have been piqued enough to pick it up; however, with the metaphorical device of the doors between countries, Hamid has crafted an interesting narrative that certainly packs a punch despite the short length of this novel.
“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart. Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play.”