Someone somewhere is made for you. Nadia was made for Saeed. Saeed was made for Nadia. One day, in an unnamed city they will meet. They will fall in love and embark on a journey through time and places, leaving their besieged country and the rampant violence behind.
This is how the plot of “Exit West”, written by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, could be described in a nutshell. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 award, the novel caused quite a stir, blame it on the themes of emigration and refugee problems interwoven with the main story. It was because of the nomination that I stumbled upon this book and since the tastes of the Man Booker judges and my literary preferences seem to be in synch, I spontaneously chose Hamid’s latest work as my next read. Just as in case of virtually all the nominees for the renown British literary prize, the novel delves into important socio-political problems, as well as addresses more universal questions of humanity, morality and life itself.
Against the backdrop of the world in turmoil, Hamid traces the love story of Nadia and Saeed, driven to leave home to escape from a bloody civil war, forced to leave all but each other behind. On their way, the young couple uses a system of strange, fictitious doors leading to the unknown, by way of an instant escape to different locations around the globe. Fiercely independent Nadia and more traditional, indeed quite conservative Saeed meet for the first time in a classroom and become instantly drawn to each other, yet do not act on it initially, they do not even dare to speak. In their tormented city, swollen by refugees, pursuing a romantic relationship seems like a half-baked idea, but they cannot resist the feeling of mutual understanding and a deeper connection between them is born, first from friendship, quickly transforming into romance. One day, cruel fate wants Saeed’s mother to be killed by a bomb and soon after the distressing event, Nadia moves in with Saeed and his father, but refuses to marry him, defying the accepted customs. When they hear a rumor about “magical” portals, the passage to different places abroad, they decide to flee from the attacked city, leaving behind the father who would feel as a burden and refuses to accompany the couple. The love story between these two individuals, at first glance complete opposites, is in fact the core of the novel. The author takes us on a journey across countries, during which, along with Nadia and Saeed, we are confronted with the omnipresent hostility towards immigrants and their struggle to find the safe place where they could feel the sense of belonging. We see them settling in a tent city in Mykonos, trying to survive among many other refugees. We feel happy for them when they manage to sneak through the doors opening the way to a luxury home in London, thanks to the compassion of a local Greek girl. Finally, we observe their growing apart from each other with a hint of regret and we celebrate their reunion after 50 years, back in the country of her birth.
There are many aspects of “Exit West” that usually work for me in a book and its concise form (230 pages) made the reading even more pleasurable, also thanks to Hamid’s writing style that goes so smoothly that the novel should be swallowed in one go, to savour the bittersweet flavour best. Too bad that I happened to go through quite an intense period in my life and I had to read it in small chunks, which left me utterly insatiate. Still, the overall impression left by “Exit West” was that of a well-written, captivating piece of work which, I believe, will be perceived on a very personal level by each reader, provoking various thoughts and dividing opinions. To what lengths would we go in order to defend our dignity? Is there still a simple, unspoiled humanity left in us? How do we define native people and immigrants? Why is there so much prejudice towards “invaders”, people who are simply trying to survive and find their place in the world? All the questions posed by the author seem unanswerable, but Hamid tackles them skillfully, inciting his audience to reflect upon them, in juxtaposition with the ongoing political situation in the world. The growing sense of unease surrounding s and n is palpable on every page, making you feel the emotional toll that migration takes. Hamid’s decision to leave the city of our protagonists unnamed was dictated, according to the author himself, by the idea to transcend ourselves and connect with each other, as”we are all migrants through time”. The final result is a story with a universal message that could apply to any refugee crisis in the world. At the same time I liked it how the author wants to show migrants as decent human beings, only under difficult circumstances, trying to lead “normal” lives despite all odds while fighting for survival. Something we all have apparently forgotten in the light of recent issues and international debates on whether countries should open their borders for refugees.
All in all, except for providing some food for thought, the book’s worth lays also in the language and well-executed plot. The elements of magical realism serve their purpose and work well with the author’s purpose of conveying a versatile message. I only wish that the characters of Nadia and Saeed were better developed and their relationship explored in more depth. At the end of the day I caught myself not believing entirely in their great, passionate love, the special connection between them, and it affected my overall perception of the novel, questioning the probability of the entire story. Still, don’t let yourself be deceived by the whole love story concept. “Exit West” goes far beyond the classic “boy meets girl” fairytale and it won’t be equally appreciated and enjoyed by everybody. It might not be a typical entertainer, but if you want to cherish a bit more thought-provoking piece of literary work, go ahead and give Mohsin Hamid a chance. I hope that you’ll be as pleasantly surprised and willing to reach for his other works as I am now.
My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in: English
Date read: September 2017