Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Penguin Books
Release Date: 2017
Setting: Unnamed country (Middle East) | Mykonos, Greece | London | San Francisco
Rating: 3 Stars
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 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
Saeed and Nadia are a contemporary young couple living in an unnamed city in the Middle East. Going about their lives, working, falling in love, having sex and occasionally smoking weed together, talking about and planning for a future; all of this on the background of a crumbling city at war with itself. For the most part they are unaffected until they are not. Fighting intensifies and reaches their town. Suddenly, food rations become scarce, curfews imposed and there is always the risk of a bomb dropping from the skies and destroying your home. When Saeed’s mother is killed by a wayward heavy-calibre round, they can no longer stay and try find a way to Exit West.
They find a ‘courier’ who is able to smuggle them through metaphorical doors that lead to new places and new realities but these new places are not without their challenges. Saaed and Nadia try to hold on to each other but their changing circumstances changes them and forces them to deal with the reality that they may not be good for each other anymore, that they have outgrown each other and the forces that had pulled them together disintegrated leaving them feeling lost, almost like strangers to one other.
The use of these metaphorical doors almost had me dropping the books. I felt like this was a great opportunity to bring to the world the migrant narratives and highlight the perilous journeys refugees have to go on to get to safety. It was a chance to document these harrowing journeys and experiences, to speak to people’s sensibilities and appeal to human consciousness on migrant issues. Mohsin however chose to deviate from this narrative and focus on Saeed and Nadia and I was disappointed. He missed a great opportunity to shed some light on this.
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” ― Warsan Shire
But, in my disappointment, I was cognizant that that was my imposition on Hamid and the book I wanted to read. I had to put my feelings aside and started to read the book that was in front of me, the one Hamid intended to write and in doing so I began to appreciate the story he was telling.
Migration and migrant experiences are such a salient subject matter and Hamid is able to bring this to us using characters we can identify with. Through Saeed and Nadia, we are able to see how in an instant life can be upturned forcing you to the realisation that home can no longer be home, forcing you to leave. And see how this leaving changes you - your perception of self, your attitudes, character, personality, views on life and even interactions with those you love. You become a new person trying torediscover yourself and navigate this new world.
I still feel that this could have been a powerful book without the metaphorical doors and magical realism bits but I do appreciate it in all it stands for. Have you read this book yet? What are your thoughts?