EXIT WEST. By Mohsin Hamid. New York: Riverhead Books, 2017. 231 pages.
I will once again confess to not reading a great deal of fiction. However, on occasion a book emerges that requires my attention. Such is the case with Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel titled Exit West. I became acquainted with the book listening to an interview with the author on NPR. The discussion intrigued me, and I decided I needed to read this book. That is because the book deals with some of the important questions of our day, including religiously-inspired violence, migration, refugees, nativism, and fear of the other. Thankfully, the publisher’s publicist graciously sent me a review copy so I could share my thoughts with you my blog audience.
I regularly write reviews of non-fiction books, and in these reviews, I don’t have to worry about spoiling the plot of the book. That is not the case when you are reviewing a work of fiction. Readers of a review of fiction would like to know something of the books texture and feel without spoiling the adventure of reading the book. If you know the full plot, especially the ending, there is little reason to read the book. I will try to give you a sense of the book without spoiling the adventure. However, if what you need is the assurance that this is a worthwhile read, but don’t wish to know much more, I can say that if you’re interested in stories that put a human face on the complexities of migration, then I believe you will find this to be a worthwhile read. If you little more information, then continue reading below.
Every good fictional story needs compelling characters, people whom you come to care about. In this book, the key characters are two young lovers named Saeed and Nadia. Although the name of the city they hail from is not stated, in the interview Hamid did note that it has similarities to his own home city of Lahore, Pakistan. Wherever it is, the city is found in a Muslim-majority nation, perhaps Pakistan, that faces the threat of militant take-over. It could also be a city like Mosul or Aleppo, cities that have a rich cultural and commercial life, but which face the threat of religiously inspired militancy.
The book opens with these words: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days.” Hamid introduces us to Saeed, who had a “studiously maintained stubble” for a beard, and Nadia, who “was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe.” This was true even though one could, in that city, dress however they pleased, within reason (p. 3). In other words, these two young adults find each other, fall in love, and try to maintain normal lives—going to school, working, and enjoying life. Despite her appearance, Nadia wasn’t religiously inclined, but she had her reasons for wearing the robe, even as he wears this stubble of a beard.
In time the relative peacefulness gives way to conflict and eventual militant control. Life changes. The question is, what about the future? If their home city can no longer promise a future, should they move on and what would that entail? What will be the nature of their relationship in this new context?
Although the choice is difficult, they decide they must migrate. Their city is being destroyed. Life is dangerous and the companies they work for close, making it difficult to earn a living. Again, think of Think Mosul or Aleppo. At the moment that they must make this decision, Nadia has moved in with Saeed and his father (she is estranged from her family, and his mother was killed by militants). The question is how will they escape? Once the decision is made, they await word from a smuggler. While Saeed and Nadia assume that Saeed’s father will go with them, he chooses to stay behind, for that is where his wife is buried. He also chooses to stay behind, because he knows it is best for Saeed and Nadia. In a poignant scene, which Hamid described in the interview, we read that the father was thinking of the future:
He knew above all else that his son must go, and what he did not say was that he had come to that point in a parent’s life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down, and threaten them with drowning for the child is now stronger than the parent, and the circumstances are such that the utmost of strength is required, and the arc of a child’s life only appears for a while to match the arc of a parent’s, in reality one sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve, and Saeed’s father’s arc now needed to curve lower, while his son’s still curved higher, for with an old man hampering them these two young people were simply less likely to survive. (p. 96).
It was a difficult parting for all involved, but it was necessary for the journey to continue toward the west. They contact a smuggler, who shows them a door through which they make passage to another land. In this story, “doors” serve as the metaphor for the means of moving from one place to another. In this story, there are many doors, and many refugees fleeing to what they hope will be a safer and better future. The question is, what will they find on the other side? Will it be all they hoped it would be? Doors may open, but where do they lead?
This is a story of migration, but it is also the story of love and commitment to the welfare of the other. Saeed and Nadia care deeply about each other, and this never dies, even if the nature of the relationship changes over time. This relationship helps humanize the story. It brings the challenges of our day to life.
I don’t want to reveal much about the plot of the book, but Saeed and Nadia work their way to the West, but when they arrive in places like London, they discover that they are not welcomed by all. The people who live in the West are afraid. They’re afraid of being overwhelmed by refugees and migrants who would change their land and culture. But the refugees can’t return home, but will this new place be a home? Such is the question facing Saeed, Nadia, and so many others who have walked through the doors, hoping for a better future.
Fiction has a power of its own that can illuminate complex issues. It invites the reader to enter the world of another, and see the world their eyes. Exit West invites us to view the world through the eyes of two refugees, Nadia and Saeed. It also invites us to consider the power and the fragility of relationships.
If you’re looking for a book that will provide an escape from reality, this is not your book. It’s a melancholy sort of book. It is a thought-provoking book that challenges our stereotypes. Hopefully, it will instill a sense of empathy toward those who face great odds and only wish to find love, safety, and hope for a better future. With that, I invite you to join Saeed and Nadia as they exit west through the doors leading to unknown lands.