Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: A review

Nadia and Saeed are a young couple living in an unnamed city in an unnamed country in an unnamed part of the world. They are also living in an unspecified time, although it is a time when social media and the internet are integral parts of their lives and when drones hover in the air spying on the happenings below. The place where they live is about to be riven by conflict between militants and the government, a most uncivil war.

The reader is left with the impression that their home is somewhere in the Middle East, although truthfully, for all we know, it could just as easily be Detroit or Memphis or Des Moines. We do know that the two have brown skin and that Saeed is a committed Muslim who prays regularly and that Nadia is independent and non-religious, although she wears the black robe of a Muslim woman as a kind of disguise.

I think all of this non-specificity is meant to make the characters into kind of Everypersons, someone with whom every reader can identify. There is also a surreal and magical realism element to their story, all of which made it a bit difficult for me to...assimilate. But in the end, I felt it all worked pretty well and my frustration with some of the vagueness of the story was secondary to the fact that I felt empathy for the characters and through them I was perhaps better able to understand the plight of refugees.

For this story is about refugees and the mass migration of people from one area of the world to another because of political and religious conflicts, as well as for economic and climate reasons. The device which the author uses to get his refugees from one place to another is one of the aforementioned magic realism elements - a kind a magic door which they pass through.

Saeed and Nadia originally pass through one of the doors in their city and end up on the Greek island of Mykonos, where they live for a time in a crowded camp of other refugees from various parts of the world. Later they pass through another magic door and come to London. Once again they are in a community of world refugees, a community that is resented and hated by nativists who harass and try to push them out. In time, an agreement is worked out to allow the refugees to live their lives and to receive some minimal support and assistance from the government.

Soon, however, Nadia and Saeed again grow restive as they also seem to be growing apart and they decide to try door number three. This time they find themselves in Marin, California. They set about making lives for themselves there but continue to grow apart and to pursue different directions in their lives.

This is a story that is drenched in sadness and loss, but is also hopeful as the migrant refugees keep overcoming barriers and striving toward something better for themselves. It sympathetically explores the contemporary migrant experience that is so much a part of our world. There is much violence and bloodshed in the story but it mostly occurs offstage so we only hear about it second-hand. It was a story that gave me much to contemplate and left me to acknowledge the truth of a couple of lines from the book:
“We are all migrants through time.” 
and
“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 comments:

  1. Wow, Dorothy, you are popping up books reviews nowadays like the world is coming to an end. ;-) Good for us readers. Anyways, this book has come up in various end-of-the-year's "best lists" and with good reason. I think the magical realism is a metaphor for being in one place then finding a better one, or better opportunities somewhere else you didn't fathom existed. I'm glad you liked it that much.

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    1. I'm reading as fast as I can, trying to get through my list before the end of the year. This one was short and easy. It was on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize and has appeared on a lot of "best of the year" lists, all well-deserved accolades.

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  2. Absolutely wonderful review, Dorothy! I agree that the book gives one much to contemplate and the words you quoted are eerie.

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    1. It is indeed thought-provoking and the thought that it most provoked for me was that we are all migrants through time. We pass through magic doors as we move through the stages of our life and at every stop along the way there are adjustments and compromises to be made.

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