Book Review: Exit West
Mohsin Hamid tells a quiet story of the fractured world we live in
On the day this review was written, the “world" page of a national newspaper carried the photograph of a bearded man, tall and well-built, who presumably hadn’t had the time to slip on a shirt over his vest; this man, physically strong but completely broken, was wailing as pathetically as the little girl he carried in his arms as he fled down the street of his war-torn city. With increasing frequency, photographs such as this from across the world, shrieking out the consequences of a growing global discontent, stun us into chilled silence, before we, on our part, erupt in outrage—who can shake off from their mind the image, one of the most heartbreaking we have seen in the recent past, of a drowned little Syrian boy in a red T-shirt, one of the many innocent victims of strife?
At a time like this, when conflict tears apart much of the world, and refuge for those who want to escape is hard to come by, Mohsin Hamid decides to create fiction out of this most overwhelming reality of our lives. This is, of course, not entirely surprising, considering that all his fiction—whether it be The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in 2007 in the post-9/11 world, or How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, a title that could mislead you into thinking this to be a work of non-fiction—seems to reflect on very contemporary subjects.
And still, beginning to read Exit West, we’re left wondering if it’s at all possible, considering our emotional response to the current refugee crisis, for him to create a story that can be nearly as powerful as the dramatic visuals and stories we see in our newspapers and on the Internet.
Hamid tells the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young lovers who meet at a time when their city—which remains unnamed throughout the novel, and could be one among many where very much the same story is playing out simultaneously—is “teetering at the edge of the abyss". For a story of strife and its repercussions on the people who come in its wake, where fear of death and death itself are encountered daily, Hamid’s narration is surprisingly quiet, the voice soothing even in the most troubled moments.
When we first arrive in Nadia and Saeed’s city, it is a place that is going about its own business despite the unrest beginning to play out on its streets; Saeed, laughingly, even works for a company that sells billboard space in a city that presumably has more on its mind than a desire to fulfil its consumerist fantasies. Told in the third person, there’s a sparseness of both emotion and dialogue, and while the reader is told what Saeed or Nadia generally think of a particular situation, one never enters their minds with any intimacy. It’s like seeing scenes being played out on our social media timelimes—always from a distance.
And yet, Hamid’s story doesn’t need the high pitch of our real-time responses of anguish and anger for us to feel the tragedy and senselessness of conflict, or even to connect deeply with both Saeed and Nadia as they cope, in their different ways, with displacement, homelessness and loneliness. Through the course of the story, mounting death tolls are mentioned in the matter-of-fact tone of one who has got used to the idea that any minute a bomb might shred you to bits; the sounds of gunfire, bombings, military aircraft are a constant distant rumble, a reminder of the dangerous territory the protagonists occupy, but almost never in the foreground. And then, when Nadia and Saeed get a chance to escape their city, to arrive as illegal immigrants in first Greece, then London and finally San Francisco, Hamid steers clear of the emotional drama imminent in describing such journeys.
This he does through the intervention of magical portals, doors that start appearing in different parts of cities around the world, some heavily guarded to prevent entry and some left free, through which people can flee into another, presumably safer, place—at least safer than the one they’ve left behind. Every now and then, the story breaks briefly from this young couple’s narrative, to take the reader to some of the places, from Dubai to Australia, through which refugees pour out into a new world. However jarring this fantastical element may seem at first in a novel where the events are grounded on so much contemporary realism, one does see that it allows the author to keep the reader’s emotions from heightening, thus making way for a perspective that only distance can provide.
In a truly global novel telling the story of this interconnected world—see also the fact that the author himself is a global citizen, brought up in Lahore, and having called both London and New York home—Hamid manages then to zoom into the rather cocooned lives of the young couple, so very different from each other. If the gentle Saeed, tortured by a feeling of guilt at having left his father behind and a sense of alienation from his new surroundings, turns increasingly to religion and his “own kind", the independent Nadia shows herself more capable of living among new people, and allowing space for new sensations.
As time passes, in the way Nadia and Saeed handle their own splintering relationship, this tremendously talented writer moves us to acceptance of a historical truth about fractured worlds: This, too, shall pass.
A romance in violent times
Nadia-Saeed’s love story. An excerpt
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.
Not long after noticing this, Saeed spoke to Nadia for the first time. Their city had yet to experience any major fighting, just some shootings and the odd car bombing, felt in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration like those emitted by loudspeakers at music concerts, and Saeed and Nadia had packed up their books and were leaving class.
In the stairwell he turned to her and said, ‘Listen, would you like to have a coffee,’ and after a brief pause added, to make it seem less forward, given her conservative attire, ‘in the cafeteria?’
Nadia looked him in the eye. ‘You don’t say your evening prayers?’ she asked.
Saeed conjured up his most endearing grin. ‘Not always. Sadly.’
Her expression did not change.
So he persevered, clinging to his grin with the mounting depression of a doomed rock climber: ‘I think it’s personal. Each of us has his own way. Or… her own way. Nobody’s perfect. And, in any case—‘
She interrupted him. ‘I don’t pray,’ she said.
She continued to gaze at him steadily.
Then she said, ‘Maybe another time.’