Saturday, December 30, 2017

Book Review: Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

If you must read only one book in 2018, let it be this.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.
"...everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same house our whole lives, because we can't help it. We are all migrants through time."

Exit West is a borderline dystopian novel that, unfortunately, is also a faithful reflection of the times we live in. It is a love story set against the backdrop of civil war and a global refugee crisis. Nadia and Saeed, the central characters, belong to an unnamed city in a country left deliberately unnamed. For all we know, it could be Syria, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, the author's home country. The ambiguity serves to drive home the fact that war and migration aren't issues specific to a region - they are universal, and neither rich nor poor countries can remain bereft of their impact.

The protagonists are mutually antithetical. Nadia lives alone, rides a motorcycle, doesn't pray, and wears the Abaya or long black robes (and I quote) "so that men don't fuck with her". Saeed lives with his parents, is devout, likes to pray sometimes, and is a romantic. They both work white-collar jobs and meet in an evening class. Their romance grows, slowly and surreptitiously, even as war is breaking out in their country.

Adding an element of magic realism to the story, there are doors opening up across the world that can transport people to other places - better or worse. The doors in strife-hit and poor countries are heavily guarded and monopolised, for there is always a premium to be paid if you want to escape misery. The doors in the rich countries in the west are, however, left unguarded, so it isn't long before the western world starts swelling with refugees. They are everywhere, in tin and tarpaulin camps, occupying abandoned houses, and out on the streets. The western world is up in arms, unable to fathom what to do with their rising numbers. The series of events is remarkably reminiscent of the global refugee crisis that peaked in 2014-15, and the outrage and rise in regulations that were seen in many European countries.

As their city falls into the hands of the militants, Nadia and Saeed pay a hefty sum to escape through one such door to the safety of a faraway land. As they navigate through squalid refugee camps and pass through more doors into new lands and circumstances, they each evolve into different people over time. As Hamid writes, 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.”

Their journey as refugees to places where they are unwanted brings them face to face with the fundamental conflict underlining migration - is the false promise held by a new land preferable to the misery of one's own troubled homeland?

At its heart, Exit West isn't just about migration or war but about the banality of human life and relationships even in troubled times. 
“It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”
Through Exit West, Mohsin Hamid speaks of how love flourishes and ebbs in the nooks and corners of a conservative society. Of how people come close and drift apart as love evolves through space and time.

Most of all, the novel speaks of the normalisation of fear and of the transient nature of human existence. It lays bare the inner workings of a migrant's mind, leaving the reader surprised at their rather commonplace and humdrum troubles even in the middle of crisis. 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Through Nadia and Saeed's eyes, we are shown the different kinds of relationship one can share with their roots, their people, and their native land. Throughout the book, Hamid talks fluidly about geography, belonging, and nativity. By leaving their home country ambiguous, the author lets the reader grasp the universality of the migrant's predicament without pinning it to the specific conditions of one country or region. I also sense an underlying emphasis on the shared experience of being human. Whether you are a migrant escaping to a foreign land or a native living a comfortable life, love and loss are essential to the human experience and are what unite us all. And so, while there are so many quotable paragraphs sprinkled through the book, this one is my favourite:

“...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...”

Exit West is about many things, including but not limited to the present political climate and the refugee predicament. It is as much about love and loss as it is about belonging and displacement, and the eternal tendency of humanity to endure in the face of adversity.

When I turned the last page of this book, there was a lump in my throat but a touch of a smile on my lips. It felt as if I had travelled around the world in 228 pages. As if I had lived an entire life. I had even aged a little. I was happy, sad, and oddly nostalgic.

“In this group, everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was.”

The fresh, lyrical quality of Mohsin Hamid's writing makes Exit West a gripping read. It is possibly the only book this year that I picked up and finished in one straight sweep without getting distracted or losing attention midway, which is saying a lot. Hamid uses long sentences - an act of blasphemy according to most writing coaches - but he does so with such alacrity and clarity of thought that it brings the characters' internal contradictions and dilemmas to life.

I loved this book so much that I am now afraid to pick up his earlier books for fear I may not like them as much. If there is indeed one book you read in 2018, make it Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It'll be a rewarding start to your reading journey in the new year. And on that note...

Happy new year, everyone! 💕 


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Published 2017 by Penguin Random House India
But it here.
Read all my book reviews here.

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