There were several books on the long list for the Man Booker Prize this year that had already found their way to my TBR, and my interest in reading them was heightened by seeing them on that list. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West was one of those books, and it was the first one I decided to pick up.
“Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what exactly she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions…”
About the book: Saeed and Nadia live in a war-torn country that’s increasingly dangerous to inhabit. They ward against the bombs and guns as best they can, but then the cell service is shut down throughout the country, their employers close the agencies they work for, municipal services fail. A death brings them closer together, living under the same roof though they haven’t been married yet, and the need to leave grows every day. There are debates everywhere about the best ways out of the country, but the surest method seems to be the secret doors, magical doors with the power to take a person out of one place into an entirely new one. But even if they can escape their ravaged country, there is no guarantee of safety; and when safety seems possible, they may discover that the intensity of their experience held their romance together better than peace ever could.
“She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not.”
The style of writing in Exit West is hard to describe, but I find it compelling. The narration is third-person, and focused generally on Saeed and Nadia’s experiences, but it also roams to other people in other corners of the world to give the reader a sense of the global state as matters expand. On a smaller level of style, the sentences run on very long sometimes, the ideas inside them separated by commas though it all falls under the same umbrella topic. It flows easily from one point to the next, and grammatically they do seem to be coherently single sentences rather than annoying run-ons, but it can be hard to keep track of where you’re at in the sentence structure if you’re not paying attention. It worked for me, but I’m guessing that less patient readers might not enjoy it as well.
“…the end of a couple is like a death, and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us of the value of things, which it did for Saeed and Nadia, and so even though they spoke less and did less together, they saw each other more, although not more often.”
There is no name given to the country in this book, but it feels like a very real place. Certainly in our world there are countries in which civilians live in constant fear under warring governments. There are clues in the book suggesting that the nameless country and city are very like countries and cities in the Middle East, which also gives the story more of a real feel because the details of culture are familiar from modern life. The realness makes the statements and implications of Exit West that much more powerful.
“People vanished in those days, and for the most part one never knew, at least not for a while, if they were alive or dead.”
Saeed’s and Nadia’s home city is not the only thing that goes unnamed–the groups of people are also given general titles rather than real, specific ones. They are the militants, the migrants, the natives. A good choice, because the fighting groups are not what’s important here– the war could be any war, but the fear and consequences in the lives of the civilians is a universal possibility. Though I have basically nothing in common with Exit West‘s main characters, I found them both very likable and understandable, even when they argued opposing points. The namelessness makes this a story that both teaches about others’ experiences, and also teaches the reader a bit about the humanity inside him-/herself.
“For when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
My favorite part of this book, however, is the magical realism. In my opinion, Exit West is an example of magical realism well done– the doors are the only fantastical detail of the story, and they serve a purpose in pushing the limits of war and desperation where they need to go, rather than existing just to exist. Exit West is a thought experiment, both a lesson in the results of war and inequality, and a chance to look at what might happen to the world if borders ceased to exist. With the existence of magical doors, almost any person can go almost anywhere. The characters can’t choose where the doors appear or where they lead, but they do allow for a steady flow of people from place to place. Some of the doors are guarded (as best as they can be), and some are capitalized upon, but even so they essentially remove the restrictions of borders that exist in the modern world. It’s both frightening and beautiful to see the highs and lows humans are capable of under such changed rules of movement.
“The affect doors had on people altered as well. Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had heard about the doors and the war and the romance of this book before I began reading, and those are really the biggest points. But even knowing what to expect, I was underprepared for the strength of this book. The ideas inside it are important and timely, though mixed with enough fictional elements to lighten the heaviest parts of the story and keep it entertaining as well as enlightening. I may pick up Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist at some point, and I will certainly be checking out more books from the Man Booker Prize longlist.
- For more great writing set in the Middle East, try A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. This is a phenomenal historical fiction novel set in Afghanistan, also highlighting the challenges and consequences of war and the nature of love.
Coming up next: I’m just starting Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom, a new thriller release about a mother and her four-year old son trapped in a zoo after hours. I believe the whole book takes place in only a short matter of hours, which sounds intriguing. I’m eager to see who will leave alive.
What are you reading to wrap up the month?
The Literary Elephant