REVIEW: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Dear Mr. Hamid,
Your acclaimed novel begins this way:
IN A CITY SWOLLEN BY REFUGEES but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something.
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.
Saeed noticed that Nadia had a beauty mark on her neck, a tawny oval that sometimes, rarely but not never, moved with her pulse.
Saeed asks Nadia to have coffee with him in the cafeteria. “You don’t say your evening prayers?” Nadia asks, and when he starts to sound apologetic for this, she tells him she doesn’t pray, and adds, “Maybe another time.” As Saeed watches her leave, she surprises him by donning a motorcycle helmet.
From this inauspicious beginning, a relationship nonetheless blooms. Unrest is causing an economic downturn in Saeed and Nadia’s country, and work starts to seem less significant. Saeed lives with his parents, and one night, while looking out a telescope in their home, he hears gunfire in the distance. The following week Saeed and Nadia have coffee.
On their next date, at a Chinese restaurant, Saeed mentions his desire to travel abroad, and their shared desire to see Latin America attracts Nadia. Each wants to see more of the other, and Nadia, after pre-emptively warning Saeed that an invitation to her home doesn’t mean sex, manages to sneak him in. She puts on an R&B record and asks Saeed if he’d like a joint.
While all this is happening, in other countries, doors begin to turn into portals. In this way, a dark-skinned man arrives in a woman’s bedroom in Australia, and uses the window to drop to the street below. In Tokyo, a man encounters two Filipina girls dressed in clothes that are too thin. He follows them, fingering something that could be a knife in his pocket.
In Saeed and Nadia’s unnamed country, the violence worsens. A cousin of Nadia’s dies in a truck bomb explosion, making the war all too real to Nadia. Unlike Saeed, who is close to his loving parents, Nadia is estranged from her immediate family. Her closeness to Saeed, and his to her, deepens.
Curfew is imposed, and it becomes more dangerous to travel between their apartments. But this only makes Nadia and Saeed’s desire for each other stronger. Saeed wants Nadia to marry him but Nadia isn’t ready to say yes. The government suspends internet connectivity. The business where Saeed works shuts down. Then tragedy strikes in Saeed’s family, and Nadia moves in.
Rumors of the portal doors capture Saeed and Nadia’s interest and eventually, not without misgivings, they decide to migrate together using just such a door. As refugees, Nadia and Saeed encounter people of all kinds, trustworthy and treacherous, dangerous and kind, welcoming and unwelcoming. Saeed and Nadia must navigate these situations and find a new home, whether together or apart.
Exit West is written in omniscient voice, in a style might be called distant. Usually I prefer close POV styles, most especially in stories dealing with relationships, but here I was grateful for the narrator’s distance. We dip into Saeed and Nadia’s heads and experience their thoughts, but the use of omniscient voice makes it possible to endure the characters’ at times painful journey without losing heart or hope for their fates.
Both Saeed and Nadia are thoughtful people, and even when driven to survive in difficult situations, neither one ever loses touch with that side of themselves. Saeed has a gentle personality, and he is more devout than Nadia. Nadia, who is independent, finds it easier to look forward to a new future in a new place, while Saeed has a stronger attachment to his homeland, and is more nostalgic for the past.
Despite the fact that Saeed and Nadia ultimately separate, I found parts of this novel romantic. Nadia and Saeed’s courtship and breakup felt universal, their desire to be together, and later, to be alone, human and utterly recognizable. They might have been any young couple working out for themselves what they needed in a partner, except that they were living through turbulent times.
Literary fabulism was the best possible choice of genre for this story. The portal doors fit into it seamlessly because experiences like war and migration have their own heightened reality, and can feel surreal, too. The book captured what it’s like to live with the looming threat of conflict while desiring peace and normalcy.
The language is filled with startling imagery I frequently found beautiful, in a similar way to the story. For example, the desks of Nadia’s coworkers who have migrated is described thus: “Their offices sat empty behind glass partitions at the prow and stern of the oblong floor[…].” Sentences are frequently long, and magical. Here is one:
Spoiler (spoiler): Show
Not many authors can sustain a page-long sentence, but this one grows in power the longer it continues. Reading it is a bit like watching a high-wire act.
The vignettes that featured other characters added to the novel’s sense of magic and poetry. Like Nadia and Saeed, these people, too, experience separations, reunions, alienation, homesickness, adventure, and new loves as the globe itself seems to coalesce in new ways, reconfigured.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the book was the insightful narrative voice. It had what I think of as clear-eyed compassion, that quality where the narrator is entirely aware of the characters’ flaws, and yet accepts and understands the characters.
I have one or two caveats, about which I feel uncertain. Late in the novel, there was a black moment conflict that was averted in a way that seemed highly improbable to me. So did a section set in the United States, especially in light of the country’s current political reality. But by this point in the novel I wasn’t certain if I was meant to read this literally, because Nadia and Saeed’s survival and new beginning had begun to seem to me to be, as much as anything, symbolic of humankind’s resilience, of our ability, as a species, if not always as individuals, to survive great upheavals.
Perhaps when Nadia and Saeed passed through the portals, they passed into a new reality they created. Isn’t that, ultimately, what nations and individuals do, from day to day and moment to moment?
This was a novel that made me think, and feel, and appreciate what I have. A-.
Great review – this sounds like a really interesting book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
@Jennie: You’re welcome!
Great review, Janine! I’m so glad this novel worked so well for you. It was one of my favorites of 2017. Like you, I thought the distancing tone worked well for the subject matter, and it also made Saeed and Nadia feel more universal (without them becoming archetypes rather than real people). There were so many lovely moments and insights in the book.
I also thought it lost some power in the last third, and the ending section seemed a bit too neat and optimistic. But I wanted to believe it for them.
@Sunita: It was one of my favorites, too, and almost certainly the best-written book I read in 2017. That’s a good point about the tone. Although they were distinct and specific characters, there was an everyman / everywoman quality to how I felt about them, and I think you are correct in pinpointing the distancing tone as what imparted that quality to them and their journey.
Yes, lots of beautiful moments and insights. And I agree on the last third, too. I really wanted that for them even though it felt convenient and like something that didn’t seem likely to happen IRL.
I loved the final chapter, though. It made a great coda for the book.
I’ve been on the fence about this book because of the price and new to me author. I’ll keep it in my wishlist and grab it when it’s on sale. I’d love to read it.
@Keishon: I hope you enjoy it if you read it! The library might be another option; since the book has won some accolades it should be relatively easy to find in libraries.
I tried to read it, but I think I found the distant tone and the very literary style made me feel disconnected from it. I never connected to it. I know a lot of people loved it, though.
@JILL Q: I’m sorry it didn’t work for you. I struggle with having too emotional a response to some literary fiction, so I appreciated the distance, but I can see that it isn’t for everyone.