This review contains minor spoilers.
The last gasps of sun dance with the dusty air and you can see thick particles gleaming in tricks of light. The desert heat is dry but the water is scarce and the grocery market that was stocked up yesterday was bombed by the faceless and nameless someone today. Your family knows that it is time to leave the city which has been home for generations. The checkpoints set up by the military were abandoned last week and you haven’t had power in three days. This is an everyday scenario for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the world today.
The world is going through the highest levels of displacement ever recorded, the UNHCR estimates that 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide. 22.5 million of which are refugees and half that number are children under the age of eighteen. So far, the world has only resettled roughly 190,000 of the displaced migrating humans who have nothing left of home but the heavy memories they carry. The refugees fleeing their war-torn countries have a mentally debilitating and physically taxing road ahead after witnessing enough of the horrors to make the decision to uproot and flee. From bribing people to help smuggle them away, dressing in clothing to mask their identity, and hoping that the people at the checkpoint don’t murder them for believing a different form of religion than they do; on top of hoping that you have enough water and food. What do you do if there’s an illness in your family? How do you react if your childhood friend is killed in front of you? What happens if your mother is caught behind but you’re pressed forward in a crowd? If only there were some kind of magic doorway to escape through with the promise of a better land on the other side.
Mohsin Hamid’s fourth book proposes that such doors do exist, and through his genre bursting novel of love, loss, courage, heartbreak, and hope he pulls the reader through the doorway into one of the most compelling and haunting books on the lives of modern-day refugees. Set in a city in the middle east rife with conflict our two main characters meet by continuing their everyday livelihood while the sounds of automatic gunfire ring out during the otherwise quiet evenings. While attending a business school night class Saeed sees Nadia for the first time. They befriend one another and are quickly interested in the unique minds that they each possess. They share meals, listen to Nadia’s extensive record collection, smoke weed, and discuss the quiet, reserved parts of their thoughts. Saeed is more devout to religion than Nadia, who shuns religion and prayer and only wears a toe to neck black covering so that men leave her alone. Nadia is interested in exploring Saeed physically, while he relentlessly avoids sex until marriage but concedes to everything plenty to keep themselves fulfilled. They have a happy accord in their young lives getting to know one another while the country around them dissolves.
“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.”
The tension in the city escalates and radicals are appearing in more numbers by the day. Saeed convinces Nadia to move in with him and his family for her safety. Nadia doesn’t want to give up her independence and living alone, but executions are happening in the streets and the local government is abandoning entire sections of the city to the rebel groups. Throughout the bleak times, there are whispers of doorways that are blacker than black. They can whisk you away to lands that are far away and safe, at least safer than the immediate respite. After an altogether too fast funeral for a loved one, Saeed and Nadia begin to discuss these doorways with more vigor. A man offers them safe passage through one, and only moments after stepping through the frame they find themselves on a Grecian Island with refugees from all over the world. They find safety away from home, but long for something else and are restless. They hop from doorway to doorway, spending time in both Europe and North America before settling into a place they can call home.
“All their doors remained simple doors, on/off switches in the flow between two adjacent places, binarily either open or closed, but each of their doors, regarded thus with a twinge of irrational possibility, became partially animate as well, an object with a subtle power to mock, to mock the desires of those who desired to go far away, whispering silently from its door frame that such dreams were the dreams of fools.”
Hamid’s writing is gut-wrenching and beautiful. His gift with words and how he writes about Saeed and Nadia’s relationship is heavy with true love in each and every one of his keystrokes. Poetic and awe-inspiring sometimes feel cheap to say, but they are the true and right words for this level of craftsmanship. The story flows with long sentences of splendor and prose that melt into scenes of compelling imagery and extraordinary human conditions. The book captures the all too familiar feeling of what it’s like to migrate, to love, to carry pain and to wonder, sometimes forever, if you could have done something differently. If saying something you wanted to say would have relieved the tension that you shoulder now late into your life.
One of the best novels of 2017, Exit West is timely and more appropriate than ever. The empathetic tugging of the soul which Hamid is able to encourage gives hope, and heartache, for we have a long ways to go as human beings; though beautiful novels like this may bridge gaps for many to realize we all truly want similar and simple things out of life.
I rated Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West 5/5 stars on Goodreads.