Wow. If there was a more timely book out there, I haven’t heard of it.
Exit West, just published last Tuesday, tells the story of two people, Saeed and Nadia, who begin to fall in love right before their city falls to “the militants”. It is their tale of survival in their home city and beyond.
Exit West for me was split in to two sections, although it was never defined that way. The first being when N & S were in their home city, and the second being their journey across the world. I think each section carried a different but equally important important message.
When everything else fades away, love remains.
Imagine living wherever you do now, and one day ‘as if someone had hit a switch’ you lose cell phone service. Weird, alarming, startling, but ok, we probably took that for granted anyway. Then the grocery stores run out of food because people are stocking up. Then the bank runs out of cash because everyone is withdrawing their money. Your classes are cancelled; you’re laid off because your company is shut down; you can’t go outside because you feel unsafe; you can’t give a family member a proper funeral because too many people are being killed; you can’t bury said family member because the cemetary is unsafe and there is no room; you lose power; you lose all municipal services; you lose the ability to feel safe inside your own home.
Mohsin Hamid does a great job of taking us through each loss, making each one hit harder than the last until you realize there is nothing left but family and love.
The writing of the novel was basic, in the most intentional way. I loved the short sentences, the use of commas, and sentences that must have had up to thirty short clauses. It doesn’t make for an easy read, so I’m not sure I’d suggest this as a beach read, but it certainly conveys the setting: The sentences are terse and to the point because only the fundamentals matter and there was no room for floral language in such a tense environment.
“…except that they were furious, and they were staring at her and at her badges with undisguised hostility, and the rancor of perceived betrayal, and they started to shout at her, and push her, that she felt beer, a basic, animal fear, terror, and thought that anything could happen, and then the next station came and she shoved through and off the train, and she worries that they might seize her, and stop her, and hurt her, but they didn’t, and she made it off, and she stood there after the train had departed, and she was trembling, and she thought for a while, and then she gathered he courage, and she began to walk, and not in the direction of her apartment, her lovely apartment with its view of the river, but in the other direction, the direction of the zoo, where she had been intending to go from the outside, and where she would still go, and all this happened as the sun dipped lower….”
We are all migrants through time
In the second half of the book, the Nadia and Saeed are traveling from destination to destination, seeking peace and comfort – but let’s be clear, they’ll settle for food and shelter.
While they are traveling, Hamin tells short stories from seemingly random people around the globe, who are staying in one place. It took me about 220 of the 230 pages to understand their role. They intrigued me for so long, and when I figured it out, the poignancy of the book skyrocketed, to put it lightly.
I wondered for so long if those characters would come in to play later, would we see them again? There was an old man who had a chair on his balcony for his ex-wife, and years later, while he stayed in one place, the chair became to belong to a friend instead. There was an Australian woman who was sleeping in her bed as an intruder came in to the room. Each story embodied a place changing, while one person remained in one place. The point: “We are all migrants through time.” While N & S are the only people physically moving in this story, we are all migrants through time as we adjust to the changing world around us, and it would do us some good to accept those changes.
My favorite quote from the book is a reflection of that adjustment:
“The apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.”
There is certainly a feeling of poignancy at the end of the novel when you watch N & S go through so much to not end up anywhere they thought they would. They began the story as normal people together in a classroom and end up far far away, both emotionally and physically.
Even though Nadia and Saeed’s life in their home city, is stripped of all normality and comfort when they choose to leave, Hamid is clear on the struggles involved in that decision. The language is harsh and the implications are not left out of the story.
Nadia and Saeed travel through the world using “doors”. These doors reminded me of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, the same way that his “railroad” was a physical rendering of a system that was not so straight forward. In another book, I’d like to learn about the transit of the refugees in today’s world, but I appreciated Hamids choice to leave that part out.
I’d give Exit West a 4.5/5. It was not a page turner, not an easy read, but it was a very very well done parable that should be required reading.
Let me know what you thought!