A perk of my gig as a professor (there are lots) is the book haul. When the email went out for volunteers to read and discuss a book on my to be read list, I JUMPED at the chance.
And it may be one of the best book decisions I’ve made
Exit West by Mohsim Hamid is difficult to summarize. All the summaries I’ve read are the surface level who did want plot points are important, of course, but don’t really capture what this special about this book. So, I’ll let you read The New York Times’ review of the book.
Okay, is the book good? Hell yes. Should you read it? Hells to the yes. If that’s all you need to know, then you’re done reading this post. If you want to know more, then step through the magical door.
Yes, magical door, because at the center of this story are magical doors where people can step through and be somewhere else. But don’t consider this book magical realism or even magical. That’s where the magical elements end.
This tale starts, as they all do, at the beginning, when boy meets girl. Saeed and Nadia meet and he’s attracted to her, even though she cautious of him at first. But this romance or intense friendship grows from a country on the cusp of tearing itself apart.
When it becomes obvious that they can longer live in “the country of their birth” they escape through a magical door. Yes, here’s where the doors come in. One minute you’re in one country and the next your in another country far away.
As people escape their homes for whatever reason, other locations become a refuge for refugees and eventually hostile in some form.
What does it mean to migrate? To leave things or be left behind, despite life continuing? That is the question this novel explores.
“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
At first, it’s easy to assume that the country that Saeed and Nadia leave is a middle eastern country. Well, it’s not easy, it’s lazy. When a coupe takes over the government in their town, I thought of Cuba in the 1950s (of course). I thought of Venezuela and the issues there. I thought of every Latin American country, several Carribean countries. I thought of the U.S. That’s when I realized, rather early, how universal this story is. It doesn’t have to be a coupe or change in regime that pushes someone from their homeland.
For example, this story tells many mini-stories, almost flash narratives, of other characters that the reader only meets and know about in a couple of pages. It’s a respite in the narrative. One of these narratives is a story about a great-grandmother who has never left her house. She has grown up there, gotten married (and divorced) and raised her children there, and now, in old age, she continues to live there. She works for an extremely wealthy family. Her grand-daughter continues to ask her to come with her through one of the doors. There a hint of big changes coming. However, the grandmother refuses to leave saying maybe next time. But around her, everything has changed. She has been left behind.
“To love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”
Migration happens whether you chose it or not.
To continue this idea, Hamid’s sentences are fluid, as close to a stream of consciousness without actually being a stream of consciousnesses. In several instances he leaves the reader breathless as they read, giving the effect of being swept away without a chance or regaining control. This helplessness echoes what Saeed and Nadia feel through their adventures in each country.
The ending is bittersweet. I closed the book and took several deep breaths before trying to unravel what I had just experienced.
Sometimes, literature changes your DNA slowly and ever so slightly. Sometimes, literature makes your kinder, smarter. Sometimes, literature forces you to move through life in a different way. This is what this book does. Hamid invites you, ever so gently, to consider life with a different set of glasses on.
This is a book I’ll continue considering for years on end. Should you read it? Yes. Should you expect to be changed? Good Lord, I hope so.
“And so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”
Here’s to nostalgia,