A novel not for everybody that perhaps everybody should read

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is another one of the books longlisted for the Man-Booker Prize (now I only have one left of the ones I discovered sitting on my list. I might even finish reading it before the short-list is announced, I believe on the 13th of September). In this case, like in a few of the previous ones, although the author, Mohsin Hamid, is fairly well-known, this is the first of his books I read. Some of the reviews compare it to his previous books, especially to The Reluctant Fundamentalist (I don’t know about the book, but I love the title, for sure), but I can’t comment on that. I can tell you that having read this book, I am curious to read more of his works.

This is another fairly peculiar book. Let me tell you beforehand that I really enjoyed it. Like many of the other books selected, the author seems to go out of his way to ignore most of the rules that those of us who read articles and books on writing are so familiar with. He tells a fair bit more than he shows (although there are some bits of showing that make up for it), he uses run-on sentences and paragraphs that sometimes go on and on (if you read it as an e-book, full pages). The punctuation of the said paragraphs is ‘alternative’ at best (quite a few reviewers have taken issue with the use of commas). And the genre is not well-defined.

The novel seemingly starts as a love story between two young characters, Nadia and Saeed, who live in an undetermined Middle-Eastern country. He is shyer, more serious, and has certain religious beliefs (although he is not obsessed or particularly orthodox). She wears a long, black robe, possibly as a protection (although her explanation of it varies throughout the story) but never prays. He comes from a happy and learned family; hers was well-off but not particularly supportive. They meet at a time when the political situation of their country is getting complicated, they almost lose each other and eventually, due to a tragedy, end up together, but never formally so. At some point, life becomes so precarious and dangerous that they decide they must leave.

The story, told in the third-person, that most of the time shares the point of view of one of the two protagonists (and briefly that of Saeed’s father), at times becomes omniscient, interspersing short interludes, which sometimes are full stories and sometimes merely vignettes, of characters that appear extraneous to the story. (And they are, although perhaps not).

The story up to that point, apart from these strange interludes, appears fairly realistic, if somewhat general (no specifics are shared about the country, and the narration is mostly circumscribed to the everyday experiences of the characters). Then, the characters start to hear rumours about some ‘doors’ that allow those who cross them to arrive at a different country. There is no explanation for this. It simply is. Is this fantasy, science-fiction (but as I said, there is no scientific explanation or otherwise, although the setting appears to be an alternative future, but very similar to our present. Extremely similar), or perhaps, in my opinion, a touch of magic realism?

People start migrating en masse, using the doors, most to remove themselves from dangerous situations, and despite attempts from the richest nations to control it, more and more doors are appearing and more and more people are going through them, and that changes everything. Many of the western nations end up full of people from other places, squatting in empty houses (like the protagonists do in London, Chelsea and Kensington to be precise), setting up camps, and the political situation worsens, with confrontations between the natives and the new arrivals, before a sort of equilibrium is reached. The two main characters move several times, and their relationship develops and changes too. (I am not sure I could share true spoilers, but I’d leave it to you to decide if you want to read it or not, rather than tell you the whole story).  

The book deals with a subject that is very relevant, although it has been criticised for using the allegory of the doors to avoid discussing and describing one of the most harrowing (sometimes lethal) aspects of the experience of illegal immigrants, the passage. Nonetheless, this novel sets up a fascinating hypothetical situation, where there are no true barriers to the movement of people between countries and where all frontiers have effectively disappeared. What would actually happen if people were not waiting outside to come in, waiting for governments to decide what to do with them, but suddenly found a back door, and were here, there, and everywhere? What if they refused to leave? What would happen then?

I enjoyed some of the interspersed stories, some magical, some of discovering amazing possibilities, some nostalgic. I also loved the language and some of the more generalised reflections about life, people, and identity (like the different groups of people who claimed to being ‘native’ in the USA, for example). We observe the characters from a certain distance at times, but we are also allowed to peek into their inner thoughts and experiences at other times. Although we might not have much in common with either of them, we can easily relate to them and put ourselves in their shoes. We don’t get to know much about some of the other characters, but there is enough for the readers to imagine the rest and fill in the gaps.

The book meanders and at times seems to stay still, just observing the new normality, as if it was trying to tell us that life, even in the most extreme circumstances, is made of the small everyday things. A few quotations from the book:

Nadia had taken one look at Saeed’s father and felt him like a father, for he was so gentle, and evoked in her a protective caring, as if for one’s own child, or for a puppy, or for a beautiful memory one knows has already commenced to fade.

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 colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.

…and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.

…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, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.

 

This is a book that questions notions of identity, beliefs, nationhood, family, community, race… It is dark at times, full of light at others, sad sometimes, and sometimes funny, and it is hopeful and perhaps even utopic (not something very common these days). I am not sure everybody would define the ending as happy (definitely is not the HEA romance novels have us accustomed to) but perhaps we need to challenge our imagination a bit more than traditional storytelling allows.

 This is another novel that is not for everybody but perhaps everybody should read. If you are prepared to cross the door of possibility you might be amazed by what you find on the other side.