Author: Mohsin Hamid
Type: Stand Alone
Page Count: 240
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: March 7, 2017
“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.”
So, a little bit of a backstory on how I came upon this book: I was on a plane to Dallas and I decided to bring a copy of The New York Times to read. I got to the pop culture section and was skimming the book selection. I read the synopsis of this book and was immediately intrigued. When I got to Dallas, I stopped by a cute little bookstore called The Wild Detectives in the Oak Cliff neighborhood. It was set inside a house and had a coffee shop towards the back and patio in the backyard.
I asked the owner if they had the book in and he told me to come back the next day because it had just released a day or two before. I returned the following day and it still wasn’t there so I picked up a few different books. Well, that same day, I went to the Dallas Art Museum to check out the Mexico exhibit featuring Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I wandered the museum for hours before walking past the auditorium entrance. Mohsin Hamid was going to be speaking there that night! I ran to the museum bookstore and there was a stack of his books near the entrance. I quickly scooped up one and held it to my chest like a precious gem. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the talk to get it signed, but it was a weird coincidence that everything aligned the way it did.
This novel took me a little while to get through, but that is no fault but my own. Work, extra curricular activities, and just general exhaustion has slowed down my ability to chomp through books. Needless to say, this is a good, quick read. Sitting at approximately 240 page, this is not a hefty book, but the content is impactful. The writing style is very rhythmic and the language is striking. Conventional labels are danced around, but never spoken. Hamid has a way of stringing words together to form poems of sentences and paragraphs. It was a joy to mentally hear each chapter roll off my tongue.
As you’ve gathered from the synopsis, the focus of the story is a Middle Eastern couple who escape their war-torn land through “doors” placed throughout the country. Yes, this is a story about migration, but it is also a tale of self discovery. Nadia and Saeed are two very different people. From what I gathered from the story, Nadia wears an abaya and hijab, but not for religious reasons. She’s a pot smoking, vinyl record collecting, independent woman who covers so that she can be left alone. She left her family behind when she was old enough and she craves more than what she knows. Saeed is very devout and family-oriented. He gravitates more to his “tribe” than those who are different than him.
This tale follows them through several countries and they go through the ebbs and flows of love, experience loss, and search for their identities (both sexually and religiously). I love how Hamid introduces a bit of light sci-fi to a world that is scarily reminiscent of present day. It helps give it a slightly more light-hearted feel than if it was left out.
I really connected with the character Nadia. The way she struggles and then comes to terms with her situation is one of the most authentic portrayals of the human condition that I’ve read in a novel. Both she and Saeed are very flawed, and it makes the story all the more powerful. I will say though that the ending is quite abrupt, but I thought that that was true to life in many regards.
“We are all migrants through time.”
“Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”
“He prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. 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, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world.”
“…but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Have you read it? Let me know what you think.