I recently finished reading Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Like the meme about toilet paper, this book only picks up the pace right toward the end. However, I think it is a beautiful novel. I like how it starts in the microcosm of a couple falling in love in a city, and eventually gets to the macrocosm of two whole lives lived in the aftermath of a war. Though the novel is about migration, I think Hamid’s most powerful messages are actually about human relationships and how closely people are connected in spite of violence.
I actually find Hamid’s tone to be surprisingly similar to that of Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games series–very even-keeled, though he is talking about heavy subjects. Perhaps that is the point. To dramatize violence is naive; it is so much a part of people’s lives everywhere in the world. Only in the Western world do we believe the lies we are told about how safe we are.
Against this backdrop, the kernels of truth Hamid offers are especially poignant. The way he talks about how Saeed and Nadia move from one country to another borrows somewhat from magical realism. We do not actually know how they get from one place to another–the two protagonists are said to go through “doors” (p.83) that take them from one place to another. The sinister implications are that, in the modern world, where borders are heavily policed, poor and desperate people will take huge risks to travel, and to ultimately survive. In fact, the novel could be arguing that migration is necessary. Lack of resources or lack of security forces people to take whatever route necessary to leave a country, often leading to massive, technically illegal migrations of people. I think here, Hamid begs the question of why we need to police borders with such fervor. What are we really “keeping out”? What does it say of our humanity that we would not allow other human beings to just live peaceful lives? Was there not a point in precolonial history when migration and exchange helped humanity thrive?
I’m intrigued as well by Hamid’s decision to intersperse throughout the novel anecdotes that at first seem to have nothing to do with the plot, but one realizes are like trail stones on the path that Saeed and Nadia travel. The anecdotes in the beginning are terrifying and quite violent–like the one about the Japanese man who is incensed to find Philipina women walking in his territory (I cannot remember the page for this). And then after a while, the stories become softer, with more connection among the characters. Perhaps my favorite is about a Dutch man and a Brazilian man who at first have not much to say to each other, but eventually fall in love (p.175).
The protagonists travel from their city–which sounds like it could be somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa–to Mykonos and London, and finally end their journey in Marin, a suburb of San Francisco. While they travel, their relationship to each other changes from that of two young lovers to…something else. And perhaps that is the more interesting transition than their physical journey. While they migrate, they get to know each other intimately, but the romance declines. They sometimes experience the annoyance of two people who are close out of necessity, but they do not hate each other.
Eventually, Nadia and Saeed part ways (p.220), which seemed inevitable from the start. They have wildly different personalities, in some parts truly only getting along because they have to. Hamid comments on what we change about ourselves when we move to other places because of culture, because of necessity, or just because we finally can. Though she does not come to terms with her queerness until near the end of the novel, Nadia may always have been attracted to women. She just had never lived in a place where it was socially acceptable to admit. She claims she wears a robe so men won’t fuck with her (p. 16). Of the two, she is better conditioned for survival after living alone for a long while before migrating and navigating without the support of her family. In contrast, Saeed is like a pampered mama’s boy at the beginning of the novel (p.9). He lives in a comfortable middle class home with both his parents. As the novel progresses, he learns to understand life from more perspectives than his own. Often, it is Nadia who points out these perspectives to him, like she does when they talk about the differences between migrants to England and to their home country (p.162).
I like the implications about faith and humanity that Hamid makes. In the novel, Saeed never loses faith, though his relationship with religion changes. Near the end, he prays “as a gesture for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way…he touched a feeling that we all lose our parents…and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity…” (p.202). It reminds me of Antonio, of how strongly I still remember him. And of my grandfather and how the family I have that is part of my generation is at peace with the fact that he is dying because he was already so old when we came into the world, but my mom and her siblings are maybe less accepting because he was not old when they were born, and for so long he was not old. And that for them it is so hard to accept that they won’t even look at the reality that one day, Koka will leave us because that is the natural way of things. They don’t accept yet that we will be okay, we are still here for each other. And I will experience losing all of them as well. And one day, hopefully a very long time from now, other people will experience losing me.
I think what I like best is the very last sentence of the novel–that they do not know if that evening will come. I like that it leaves the door open for possibility, and that there is this hope that something good, something beautiful and pleasing, is on its way, perhaps. It might take its time coming to us, and maybe we have to get through hardship on the way to it, but it is there, waiting.