Last week, the Booker prize short-list was released. I am one of those people who loves to immediately find the short-listed titles in my local library and read them. Among the authors the only one I recognized was Mohsin Hamid. I had read his previously Booker prize nominated novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and was happy to find that his latest book “Exit West” was also readily available to read at my library.
Exit West is a story of two people Saeed and Nadia and what it means to be a refugee, uprooted from what is familiar to places that are unwelcoming. Saeed and Nadia are from a nameless country that finds itself taken over piece by piece by militants. It could very well be any one of the conflict-ridden countries of the world. Saeed is from a loving tight knit family and Nadia is an independent woman who is estranged from her family but manages to make a life of her own in a country we are told, such a thing was not easy or common. They take a class together and slowly start going out and their story unfolds. But so does the war. As fighting escalates and curfew is imposed, meetings become more difficult. When Saeed finally manages to come to Nadia’s apartment during a short lull in fighting, they share small romantic moments.
….Saeed showed her on his phone images by a French photographer of famous cities at night, lit only by the glow of starts.
“But how did he get everyone to turn their lights off?” Nadia asked.
“He didn’t”, Saeed said. “He just removed the lighting. By computer I think.”
“And he left the start bright.”
“No, above these cities you can barely see the stars. Just like here. He had to go to a deserted place that was just as far north, or south, at the same latitude basically, the same place that the city would be in a few hours, with the Earth’s spin, and once he got there he pointed his camera in the same direction.”
“So he got the same sky the city would have had if it was completely dark?”
“The same sky, but a different time.”
A journey of love is riddled with passion, conflict, doubt and compromise as it chugs along to attain a state of contentment. Stops are made and the journey continues, or sometimes ends abruptly. War however accelerates Saeed and Nadia’s love story and they go through the journey of love far too quickly. Saeed and Nadia are regular people forced to deal with extraordinary circumstances. When it becomes increasingly difficult to survive in their country, they decide to leave for a better place. There are rumors of existence of ‘magic doors’ that offer a way out to other peaceful places. Mohsin Hamid uses ‘magic realism’, a technique I became introduced to when reading the Latin American novelist Margaret Mascarenhas. By introducing the concept of magic doors that provide passage to other places for a hefty price, Hamid chooses not to focus too much on the harrowing journey that refugees take in search of a better life. Instead he focuses on what that life looks like after one ends up in these new places. When people are forced to migrate, they leave behind so much….and Hamid captures that heartbreaking feeling.
…..For when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind…
Despite the difficult subject, Exit West presents us with a near future world that has hope. The novel demands us to question who is a migrant and who is a native. Saeed and Nadia’s story is interspersed with several others who use the magic doors to enter new places, have new experiences and change their lives. What makes someone a migrant when all of us really are “migrants passing through time”. This is a timely novel. Hamid does not waste any words as Exit West is all of 228 pages long but conveys so much so beautifully. Although Hamid likes to write long sentences that are at times confusing, they are lyrical. This book is worth reading and re-reading.