Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

>> Saturday, August 26, 2017

TITLE: Exit West
AUTHOR: Mohsin Hamid

PAGES: 231
PUBLISHER: Riverhead

SETTING: Around the present, various locations
TYPE: Fiction

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . . .

Exit West follows these remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
My Man Booker reading has started out slowly, with a couple of books I expected to like but found disappointing. Possibly because of that, they were both a bit of a slog. Exit West blew them out of the water, and it was a completely different experience. I listened to the audiobook of this one, and once I started, I had to force myself to stop (I still could only make it last for a couple of days). It's that good.

Nadia and Saeed meet in a city about to fall prey to a fierce civil war. What normally would have been a slow, steadily developing relationship is turbocharged by the danger when the war heats up and all normality disappears. And then rumours start about doors that are appearing and connecting their city to distant places.

This is a book about the refugee experience, but it's focused on a very particular part of it. It's not so much about being a stranger in a strange land, or about the miseries of trying to get into a safer country that doesn't want you to come in, as would be more obvious, but about how leaving their birthplace can change people, some more than others, and how that can lead to people growing apart. There are very few books about the refugee/immigrant experience (I do know the difference, it's just that this element applies to both) that I identify with, where I recognise elements of my own experience, but this is one of the few.

I felt the device of the doors was key in allowing Hamid to concentrate on and explore these particular aspects. I was a bit vague earlier, but these are basically magic doors. They suddenly appear, with no warning, and by walking through them, you find yourself in a different location. I must admit I was a bit leery about the idea when I heard about the book (it might have been what kept me from reading it until now), but but they work beautifully. The doors are not important. They're not the point. We don't find out why they suddenly started appearing, we don't really explore how they work. They just are. And they function as a way of telling the refugee story without focusing on the journey. Assuming refugees can get to developed countries by magic allows Hamid to concentrate on the leaving and the arriving and how that affects the relationship between our two protagonists.

Seeing Nadia and Saeed grow apart (this is not really a spoiler, as it's quite obvious) was strangely satisfying. They are very different people, once out of the structures that made being together feel more natural. Saeed is conservative and devout. He feels nostalgia for his old country, and wants to stick to his own ("his own" being people of his same religion and from the same country). Nadia is a lot more adventurous, and wants to explore the new things her new environment has brought into her life. For her, leaving the old country has been a liberation, not a loss. Growing apart is not a trauma for either of them, even if both feel resistant to do it. It's a happy ending, because it allows them both happiness. They're happier apart than they ever would have been together.

And by the way, I was not surprised to have Nadia be the one flourishing in a new, completely different world. At the risk of generalising, this might be a male/female migrant thing, because I've seen that again and again. When you leave a patriarchal country, you're much more likely to miss home (or elements of home) if you were amongst the privileged, the group with more freedoms.

Beyond the characters, I was particularly impressed with how well the writing style worked. The tone is almost fairy-tale narrative, which might be why the magical doors, in turn, are not at all an issue. So much writing advice is about showing, not telling, but telling can work just fine, in the right hands. I recognised and understood Saeed and Nadia just the same. And the omniscient narrator, introducing bits and pieces of foreshadowing, worked beautifully to increase the tension.

And to me, the way the audiobook was produced helped the tone come to life. The narration is by the author himself. He's clearly not a professional narrator, but his unpolished voice and his solemn and earnest tone are just right for the story. It helps that we've got that omniscient narrator and very little dialogue, because he didn't need to do voices of different characters, which is where the non-professional would probably stumble worst.

The other thing that struck me while reading this was that there were so many echoes of stuff going on in the world today, beyond the obvious one of this being a story about refugees. The image of the empty mansions in Kensington being colonised by migrants who needed them put me in mind of some of the discussions after the Grenfell Tower disaster. The takeover of empty nearby mansions by survivors never actually happened, as far as I'm aware, but it gave me pleasure to see it here. I also saw echoes in Saeed and Nadia of the theory that (at least in the UK) the faultline that really matters these days is not the one that separates right and left, but the 'Somewheres' and the 'Anywheres'. Saeed has many of the characteristics of the 'Somewhere', while Nadia is very much an 'Anywhere', and that, as much as anything, illustrates why they don't really suit each other, once they're able to be the persons they want to be.

I could go on and on about this one, heading off in tangent after tangent. It's a fantastic book, and one that would probably make for a really good book club discussion. It's at the top of my favourites of the longlist so far (it's only the third I read, of course, but still), and it will probably stay in that area even once I've read them all.



meljean brook 27 August 2017 at 05:19  

Oh, I hadn't even heard of this book before now, but it sounds really fascinating. I'm sold.

Ha, I love it when you do these Man Booker reviews. So many books I wouldn't have read otherwise.

Rosario 31 August 2017 at 06:29  

Glad to hear that! :) Sunita and Liz Mc are reading the longlist this year as well, so if you haven't checked out their blogs, you should (links are, respectively: https://readerwriterville.wordpress.com/ and https://myextensivereading.wordpress.com/ ). I'm really enjoying the communal reading element!

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