Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction, Modern-Lit, War novel
I have read Mohsin Hamid after a decade, Moth Smoke was my first and only book by him. There were raving reviews for Exit West, so I picked it up last month. I read the synopsis and was ready to read a love story of sorts from my region. Was I in for a surprise! Although there are elements of romance in this book, but that is not what makes it a good book. The subject matter does!
With Brexit, wars in the Middle East, Trump putting restrictions on specific countries and millions of people getting displaced. The subject matter, that is immigration of persons from war-torn countries is the most relevant today. This book was very powerful. It will stay with me for a very long time and I will never look at immigration the same way, that in my opinion is the number one accomplishment of this book.
However, the characterization for me was a bit bland hence the four stars. This is not the first fictional novel I have read on war, with such a powerful subject the author could have done more with the storytelling, it was too straight forward for my liking. And the characters lacked emotion, considering the circumstances so although I was moved by the situation I did not empathize with the characters.
The author does not mention the country of origin for the central characters, but it seems to be one from the Middle East. The culture he has depicted seems closely related to Pakistan, Hamid’s country of origin and mine. The story revolves around two central characters Saeed and Nadia. Saeed appears to be more conservative and grounded to his roots, Nadia on the other hand is an independent woman who lives on her own and wears a black gown for her protection rather than any religious sentiment. They meet at an evening class. Before their romance could blossom their country is struck by war. There are curfews, bomb debris on the roads, public hangings, no electricity and scarcity of food. This aspect of war was gut-wrenching as life shifts from perfect normalcy to something nightmares are made of.
One’s relationship with windows now changed in this city. A window was a border through which death was most likely to come.
One of the key elements that was missing from this book was the actual physical movement of one person to another country. For many immigrants this is the most painful process, where they cheat death trying to cross oceans by boats or by trying to penetrate heavily guarded borders. Hamid has used a metaphor “doors” for this process, doors that can lead a person from a war-torn country into a safe haven in the West. Nadia and Saeed take one such doors to enter England and then another destination in the USA. The elements were Hamid talks about their life and relationship as immigrants is very painful, Saeed and Nadia need to carry their entire possessions in bags so they can move from one location to the next if they are forced out or threatened. Saeed and Nadia aren’t the only ones too, Exit West talks of thousands of people from war torn countries who have escaped death and are faced with destitute as they try to settle into more developed regions in the West. The immigrants are met with hostility from the locals who have been living in the West for generations. Hamid puts very eloquently the pain of the immigrants who have escaped one type of hate and are met with another.
The fury of those nativists advocating wholesale slaughter was what struck Nadia most, and it struck her because it seemed so familiar, so much like the fury of the militants in her own city. She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not.
Saeed and Nadia have a very complicated relationship that develops though war, immigration, new challenges and eventually fade into peace. They revisit their homeland again towards the end of the book to submerge in the nostalgia. The war was over some decades ago but their lives changed forever.
But that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind
This is a very relevant book of these times, I would encourage most of my friends in the developed world “West” to read it. Or eventually I hope someone picks it up for the big screen and makes a movie that can reach a broader audience.