Exit West (2017) by Mohsen Hamid starts off in a nondescript war-torn country (somewhere, we assume, in the Middle East) and follows two young lovers fleeing the violence. They become refugees and we follow their path of migration.
“Our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does”
I had high expectations for this one, not only because of all the hype but because I really enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist – it was, in fact, our very first book club read and thus holds a special place in my heart.
“Alone a person is almost nothing”.
Maybe it was because of these high expectations that I felt a little disappointed with the book. There were parts where I could tell he was trying to pull at our heartstrings, and there were many shock-factor moments i.e. playing football with a human head, but I found myself staying relatively emotionally stable throughout. Like yes, we’re supposed to feel sad when someone dies or gets left behind but I don’t think Hamid managed to make us love the characters enough before this happened. The character development was nowhere near as nuanced as that in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (ok, I promise I’ll stop comparing from this point onwards).
“She watched bombs falling, women exercising, men copulating, clouds gathering, waves tugging at the sand like the rasping licks of so many mortal, temporary, vanishing tongues, tongues of a planet that would one day too be no more”
I liked it and it was a quick read but it felt very superficial. He included magical doors that acted as portals and that is how many people were able to migrate between different countries in the blink of an eye. This tipped him into the realm of magical realism, and while that is a genre I enjoy I feel like there was absolutely no need for it, it made no difference to the plot and I think the author just used it as a convenient gimmick. He used it as a way to speed up his point – that in a world where movement is easy and migration is near impossible to control, what will that effect have on the demographics and balance of countries today. However, I think that a large part of the refugee narrative is the journey, which he completely eschewed in this book.
“The nation was like a person with multiple personalities, some insisting on union and some on disintegration, and that this person with multiple personalities was furthermore a person whose skin appeared to be dissolving”
He also used the doors to introduce a myriad of little scenes of migration stories that are not the protagonists’ scattered throughout the book. I assume he did this to show that the doors were being used wide-scale all around the world in different ways. Some of them were interesting side stories and some of them were too short and vague to add anything of substance at all. I also maintain that it didn’t do much for the plot except add a touch of chaos – which may be Hamid’s desired effect, I guess.
“He made her laugh once, then again, and again, he made her skin burn and her breath shorten with surprised beginnings”.
I feel like he was writing consciously – he wanted to make sure he was as ‘quotable’ as possible. This seems to be a trend these days, authors packing in as many one-punch statements as they can to make sure at least a line or two will go ‘viral’. For example, he ended a chapter with “we are all migrants through time”. I’m pretty certain he envisioned that as a mic-drop moment. It felt a bit staged to me.
“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind”.
He certainly IS quotable, but I like reading old books because the authors have no idea they’re penning a quote that will get stitched onto pillows and posted on Instagram and quoted in bios and tattooed onto hipster appendages. It felt to me that Hamid was trying too hard. He did succeed though, I have to admit. He wrote a catchy book on a hot topic with loads of quotable content, and it seems to have pleased the masses (and myself, to a certain extent).
“To love is to enter the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you”.
I certainly enjoyed his themes. He brought up questions of belonging, community and identity in a touching way. Where do our loyalties lie and to whom? How does nationality affect us in a world with increasingly free movement? We sometimes forget that the idea of nationalism and nationhood is a relatively modern concept and Exit West reminded me of that. When we leave our countries behind as migrants, do we identify with our old country, our current host or a third party altogether?
“‘To be among our own kind,’ Saeed answered.
‘What makes them our kind?’
‘They’re from our country.’
‘From the country we used to be from… We’ve left that place’
‘That doesn’t mean we have no connection’
‘They’re not like me’.”
Hamid also proved that no matter which variables you choose, there will always be an US and THEM dichotomy. Whether the fracture is over religion, nationality or class, there will always be a war between those with power and those without.
“For what did those divisions matter now in a wold full of doors, the only divisions that mattered now were those who sought the right of passage and those who would deny them passage”
The hands down most beautiful part of this book to me was the discussion on spirituality. What does prayer mean to us? Who do we pray for? Why do we pray? He explored these questions through Saeed, the male lead. Saeed prayed out of habit, but also out of belief, out of a need to feel a connection with his parents, out of a sense of duty and structure in his changing world, and out of hope and love. As a devout muslim, I pray at least five times a day and I appreciate any discussions that seek out the spirituality in this ritual, when so many people today might turn it into something mechanic. The interesting opposite to this was Nadia, the heroine, and her atheism. It was beautiful that these characters could love each other in spite of this difference of beliefs – especially when there are people of the exact same faith who go to war over the most trivial of discrepancies in their different interpretations of the SAME book.
“He prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way”
As with most stories, Exit West hinted at the idea of human nature. When families were torn apart and new ones were put together we reconsider questions like: What is love? Who do we love? What is family and what binds us? Cruelty and honour are both found in the world around us, people are rough but people can also be gentle. Hamid featured kind strangers and backstabbing friends.
“We too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope”
While I wasn’t blown away (I think I’ve made that clear) I did enjoy the book. It’s a simple, fast read. You run through the chapters without quite realizing how the pages managed to slip past, but it manages to still be thought-provoking and packs a punch.