Exit West is Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel and the first one I’ve read. It is on the Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist. When I read about it earlier in the year, I decided this would the one where I would get on board, and with its themes of refugees fleeing war and the challenges of emigration, it seemed pertinent.
It is a story of a young couple Nadia and Saeed who meet in their unnamed home country, which felt to me while reading as if I were reading about Syria, just before the conflict in their country escalates. They meet in the classroom, he with his “studiously maintained stubble”, she in”flowing black robe”. She brushes off his invitation to have coffee initially, eventually agreeing and slowly they develop a friendship, a relationship.
Interspersed with their narrative are brief snapshots of lives being lived at that moment elsewhere – an incident between and man and a woman happening in Australia, a man nursing his Irish whiskey drink in Tokyo. To be honest, I didn’t get what these intrusions into the story were about – perhaps just that life continues elsewhere, oblivious to the dramas of others?
Saeed lives at home with his parents, Nadia lives alone, her robe is her protection, allowing her to live more freely than the alternatives. However as war approached the city, their lives must change and after hearing about an escape route, the couple decide to flee and to create a life elsewhere.
While they are in their hometown it is a story of a young couple attempting to overcome the lack of trust that exists in a culture where independent women live in fear, once they leave it becomes something else, they lack family, friends and community, they try to recreate those things in an environment that is antagonistic towards them. Their memories of what they have left change shape as the are afflicted by nostalgia, regret, loss. They struggle to find their place and even their relationship morphs into something unrecognisable in foreign lands.
There is no voyage, the journey takes place through a door, a portal to another world, to an island in Greece, to London, San Francisco, but the places they travel to bear little resemblance to those places as you and I might know them. They are inaccessible, frightening, there is a sense of them being hunted, of needing to be ready to run, always, it is a fearful dystopian view of supposed freedom from terror; death may have been a more desired alternative after all. And the slow unwinding of their relationship.
The combination of the real and surreal was a bit much for me, somehow it’s easier to go with at the hand of Haruki Murakami, which in a way this reminds me a little of, but while Murakami feels more like pure fantasy, Moshin Hamid invites us to consider a subject that is very real in the modern world today and succeeds in making it disorienting to the reader. Perhaps that is the point.
I read Hala Alyan’s novel Salt Houses (click title to read review) this year, which was also a novel of displacement, centred around multiple generations of Palestinian refugees, who attempt to make new lives in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and America and the challenges they face, even when they are able to retain certain family connections. It’s a cultural loss that is not apparent on the surface, that Alyan digs deep into to reveal the subtle layers.
It makes an interesting complement to Mohsin Hamid’s perspective of loss and dislocation.
For a more enlightened view of what this novel portends to show the reader, check out the following reviews:
The Atlantic – Exit West and the Edge of Dystopia, by Sophia Gilbert
The Guardian – Magic and violence in migrants’ tale by Andrew Motion
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.