- What: Exit West
- Who: Mohsin Hamid
- Pages: 231, softcover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
Killing me softly is exactly what Mohsin Hamid does with his lyrical novel, Exit West. He’s created existential poetry as his words reach down to the core of human emotion and make you experience exactly what the characters are feeling: anxiety, stress, and the overwhelming sense that you’re just going through the motions.
Raw human emotion.
That’s what he evokes.
He gives it to us in an imaginary world that doesn’t seem too far away from the one we’re already living. It’s filled with violence and terror, prompting people to seek refuge elsewhere. Sound familiar? In Hamid’s world, though, he gives us a little bit of hope that we can all find a new place to call home, even if that place is filled with trepidation and its own set of challenges.
“…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.” — Exit West
Exit West takes us to a place we think we can guess, perhaps Syria, where life has been disrupted and people are fleeing for their lives. As the book evolves, you learn that it could actually start in any corner of the Earth because terror happens everywhere, and everyone is looking for an escape.
At the beginning, we meet Saeed and Nadia, two young adults in the same night class. He’s intrigued by this woman who is very much his opposite. She wears a black cape and rides a motorcycle. She possesses an independence that’s unusual for women in their area. Their relationship begins as rebels start to take over their city. Deaths and danger rise, and Nadia and Saeed — whose religious and introspective character contrasts sharply with his girlfriend’s — start to think of life away from violence and their hometown, which Nadia has always wanted to leave.
“War would soon erode the facade of their building as though it had accelerated time itself, a day’s toll outpacing that of a decade.” — Exit West
Then they hear about these doors that can transport you to another place. Doors that pop up in unexpected places and can take you halfway across the world. Knowing they only have fear and terror if they stay, Nadia and Saeed take advantage of the opportunity and end up on the Greek island of Mykonos, and then London, and finally California. All the while, they’re surrounded by like-minded migrants trying to rebuild their lives. Nadia and Saeed will soon learn that even though the doors can take you away from terror, danger exists wherever you can go, and escaping cannot fix everything.
While the first half of the book speaks to the atrocities of war and how it can disrupt even the most quotidian aspects of life, the second half focuses on the lonely and sometimes helpless road of being a migrant and refugee. It can force you to stick with people you may have otherwise grown apart from — out of loyalty or guilt — or it can distance two people despite the love they share.
“That is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” — Exit West
There are many qualities of Hamid’s writing that struck me as brilliant, but one captured my attention from the offset, which Michiko Kakutani echoed in her New York Times review.
“[Hamid] also captures how insidiously violence alters the calculus of daily life: how windows with beautiful views become a liability; how funerals become smaller, more rushed affairs because of fighting in the streets,” she wrote.
Hamid hones in on objects and creatures and gives them great detail to make them part of the larger story. A window, for example, is no longer a window. In war, it can become a violent object, something to harm or even kill you, though it can also be a portal to the outside world, one you’re too afraid of to join.
On another page, Hamid writes of the interest Nadia takes in a visiting fox, which comes to reflect her relationship with Saeed. It seems a little lost, and nobody knows its origin. Its actions leave a trace of foreboding.
“One night the fox encountered a soiled diaper, pulled it out of the trash and sniffed at it, as if wondering what it was, and then dragged it around the garden, fouling the grass, changing course again and again, like a pet dog with a toy, or a bear with an unfortunate hunter in its maw, in any case moving with both design and unpredictable wildness, and when it was done the diaper lay in shreds.”
This quote is also a perfect example of how Hamid portrays emotion. Admittedly, I’m usually not a fan of the run-on sentence as a literary device. It works in Exit West. The sentences are winding, unending, and full of tension. Their structure is dripping with symbolism of the world in which Saeed and Nadia are living. This is how he brings you in as a character.
All of the best books put you in the characters’ shoes and make you feel what they’re feeling. That’s exactly what this novel does, and it’s powerful. Considering the turbulent world we currently live, it especially hits “home” — a loose term in this context. You become the migrant looking for solitude and safety, to whom nothing else matters. You become the native who doesn’t want his life disrupted. You become Nadia, looking for a place to fit in, and you become Saeed, missing your home and everything you used to know.
You feel for all of these people, real and fictional.
Hamid writes that “We are all migrants through time.” Exit West proves that to be correct.
“In this group, everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was.” — Exit West