Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Exit West is a story of love and loss, set against the backdrop of war and migration.
It starts in an unnamed city, presumably somewhere in the middle East and talks of the growing unrest there. The city is bursting with refugees and militants are gaining ground. It is in this time of impending turmoil that Saeed and Nadia find each other and try to grow their acquaintance tentatively.
Nadia is surprisingly independent, fierce and sure whereas Saeed is gentle and reticent. Soon, the war reaches them and Saeed’s mother is killed. This precipitates a situation in which Nadia moves to Saeed’s place. However, it is clear that they cannot stay in their city or country for long and try to move out to another place, safer and with more opportunities.
Exit West is the story of the migration of the pair, Saeed and Nadia and of countless others, across countries and continents so that the face of the earth is ever changing.
The novel starts in an unnamed city and as people go about their normal lives, the warring and increasingly unsafe city is kept at an arm’s length, out of their private worlds. Indeed, we don’t get a real feel of the city at all and this may have been done deliberately so that this city could be anyplace the reader can imagine.
The city is under seige and we learn of the difficulties that the ordinary citizen faces. It was quietly reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s book, ‘We the living’, that explores war and desperation.
“…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.”
One recurring motif in Exit West is blackness, the rectangular blackness that may mean to be doors that are mysterious and leading to equally mysterious destinations. These doors bring a touch of magic realism to an otherwise very realistic representation of the starkness of life in a war torn city. The technique is surprising and yet it does not stand out like a sore thumb.
Exit West touches on the cyclical nature of the world and of life.
What works well
Exit West has a different feel to it when you read the words and the sentences. Mohsin Hamid seems to be saying things in one breath so that he can set it all down before any of his thoughts get lost. The long sentences, oh, the multiple clauses and the rambling on, so that one sentence becomes a complete paragraph and a page. I found this way of writing and explaining and going off on a tangent, even within a sentence very liberating, so that all the thoughts that one can have for a particular thing are put in one place, separated in their breathlessness by mere commas.
The love story of the main characters, if their relationship could be called so, has a typical arc of infatuation, attachment and then indifference which may or may not melt into anger or bitterness. The romance is not fairy tale, as in our times. In this way, it mirrors relations everywhere and the way the characters are etched, clear enough but not very unique, so that they can represent many other young people of their country and elsewhere gives it an air of universality.
The writing is purposeful. Mohsin Hamid is a man with a clear story in his mind and he moves with clarity.
What does not work so well
The first half of the book, namely the coming-together and getting-to-know-each-other part and managing life in times of war is interesting. The little details are touching, like the lemon tree or the dyers in the millitant occupied neighborhood or the changing face of the city, the chequers of city that are held by opposing sides in a war. But the second half becomes more of a commentary on our times, on migration and the hopelessness of it all and the challenges that are faced by both the fleeing and the places where they land. I felt a little lost in this part of the book when I moved across continents with the people.
A sensitive portrayal of love, war and migration. Read it for a commentary on our times and the unique narrative structure.