Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)
This is probably my favorite read of the month so far, which is actually a bit surprising to me as I was initially nervous that I wouldn’t like it. Exit West is part love story, part science fiction dystopia, part moving critique of the plight of refugees in the modern world, and all of those parts coexist and intermingle in a book just a smidge over 200 pages. I was worried that it would all be too much in too little space, but my fretting was foolish because this book is incredible. The story is so tightly plotted, the characters are perfectly developed, and the writing itself is absolutely wonderful. I keep a commonplace book in which I jot down choice quotes from my reading, notes about my plant babies, interesting new words, recipes, etc., and I filled pages with quotes from this book, quick snippets of description to longer passages that packed within themselves emotional punches I want to keep remembering and revisiting. Here’s one:
“But many of the children in the House of the Children had at least one living parent or sibling or uncle or aunt. Usually these relatives labored on the other side, in the United States, and their absences would last until the child was old enough to attempt the crossing, or until the relative was exhausted enough to return, or on occasion, quite often, forever, because life and its end are unpredictable, especially at a distance, where death seems to operate with such whimsical aim” (160).
It’s writing that just quietly eviscerates you before it just as quietly puts you back together again:
“When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being” (202-203).
Exit West is the story of two young students, Saeed and Nadia, living in an unnamed country on the brink of a civil war of sorts, who fall in love. Saeed is a moderately religious man who lives with his parents in a small but pleasant apartment, the crowning jewel of which is a telescope that he’s inherited from his father. Nadia is not religious, but she adorns the trappings of a conservative Muslim woman to keep herself free from the inconveniences of unwanted attention from men. Privately, she has disinherited her family to have the freedom of living alone in a small apartment where she listens to records, smokes joints, and nurtures a lemon tree on her rooftop. Their relationship is improbable but so easy to root for, and the reader comes quickly to adore them both.
Of course, our beloved characters cannot be left long to their happiness. Trouble comes in the form of armed militants who do battle with the government military forces, destroying neighborhoods and curtailing possibilities in the lives of all the citizens of Saeed and Nadia’s country. At the same time, rumors begin to spread of ordinary doorways, all over the world, that are randomly changing to become unassuming portals to other places on the planet. One might cross a threshold in Argentina and wind up in Greece, for example. Developed and “secure” nations such as England are immediately put on high alert as they try to staunch the exponentially increasing tide of immigrants and refugees from war-torn or drought-ridden countries, and one of the central themes of Exit West is the extent to which such tactics are able to work and the effects they have upon the perpetrators and the victims.
The story that binds this novel together is, of course, Saeed and Nadia’s, and the reader watches to see how they fare in this tumultuous world that is so like our own actual world but with, frankly, more hope. The use of doorways as literal teleportation devices serves as an intriguing defamiliarized portrayal of refugee migrations; it is a plot device that allows the reader to view a topic, so weighted and fraught in our lives today, with, if not levity, exactly, a bit of literary playfulness. This lets the reader move beyond her preexisting ideas about our current refugee crisis to imagine other viewpoints, other possibilities, and entirely novel outcomes. But, to be clear, this novel is not moralizing; it is not pedantic or sentimental. Provocative, yes; sanctimonious, no.
I’ve never read anything quite like Exit West before, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to experience this novel. I cannot wait to get my nose into another of Hamid’s creations, and I recommend this one without reservation. 5/5.