Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
I have many thoughts and feelings to process after reading Exit West. In a word, the book is beautiful. It is short, really more of a novella, and yet every word is used to maximum effect. I reeled under the weight of the words, and am still lingering in a book hangover from this one.
First off, I believe homage must be paid to the incredible language of the book. Hamid's passages of run-on sentences are haunting and evocative and so perfect, they read like poetry.
"... when the tension receded there was calm, the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be."
It follows the love affair of two desperate young people, Saeed and Nadia, in a city that is falling apart around them. It never mentions where they are from by name, but throughout the book I assumed they were in Syria, due to current events. However, after discovering that Hamid is from Pakistan, I'm not sure where their city was intended to be. Where Saeed and Nadia come from doesn't really matter - I believe the point is that their story is very common in today's world.
As everyday life devolves into shootings, car bombings, media takeovers, curfews, and then full-on war, the two lovers feel mounting panic as the routes to escape their country become fewer and fewer. But there are rumours of doors that are opening, around the world, leading to somewhere else ... just step through and find a way out. I love the concept of these doors, as they pop up everywhere with more and more frequency. Almost as if through sheer desperation of people facing extinction, they were willed into being.
Saeed and Nadia pay a substantial amount of money to be given access to one of these doors. And although the actual journey is unorthodox, their experiences as refugees in countries that would rather not have them about is universal. Not just in the shame felt at being the "other," but also all that we grieve in what is now behind us.
"... when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind."
The book gradually builds in tension until your teeth are fairly grinding together. Saeed and Nadia make a few jumps before arriving in London, where things are getting real and the "natives" are calling for blood. The possibility of massacre stands out in its gruesomeness, as well as the sheer fact that this could very well happen. All of humanity stands at the brink of where it might go ...
*** spoiler alert***
And then. There is a moment where the fighting stops, where the native people choose to accept the destiny of humanity and follow the progress of where things are going, rather than fight it to a bitter, bloody end. This is deemed a moment of bravery, because it is brave to stop fighting even when you are frightened. That is the turning point, the apex of this novel, and it is lovely, as there is a discernible tension rising, and releasing. In the midst of all this chaos, the love story of Saeed and Nadia plays out in a way that is very understandable, very human, a little bit heartbreaking but also very real. This book was masterful and a very satisfying read as a reader.
I'm still thinking about the book days later and I feel immensely grateful to Hamid for having written it. For while it begins with frightening familiarity - magical realism aside, I believe his forecast for the future of humanity to be a very likely one - but managed to create within it a place of goodness, of creation, that out of the terror and uncertainty something good can be created. It is a kindness on his part, to give us a dream, a new Jazz Age, a time and place where all cultures could mingle, foods could be sampled and fused, new music mixed with traditional and created something wholly new. Life could begin again anew, maybe not perfectly, and maybe not as before, but in a new way, more sustainable, more equalitarian. Hamid gave us utopia.
"... this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity's potential for building a better world ..."
I feel as though reading this book has made me a more complicated person, and a better one. I think this should be required reading for ... everyone. Well, everyone in a country that is struggling with migration issues, which is ... everyone. This is our reality and will continue to be our reality, and we may not have magical doors but we do have an extreme situation of mass migration spreading throughout the world and so we must all learn to be compassionate and see all sides of the story. Please read this book.