In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet -- sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors -- doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. Exit West follows the couple as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are.
"We are all migrants through time."
As Nadia and Saeed are falling in love the militants take over their city and the populace descends into fear, hunger, and desperation. Doors are opening, though, vaguely magical doors that enable migration to another place on the glove, providing possible escape from terror and oppression. One can't be sure that the life on the other side of the door will be an improvement, but over and over and over people flee the situation in the city or country in which they were born to seek refuge and hope in another land. We follow Nadia and Saeed as they migrate a few times, each time taking the risk that they will be neither welcome nor safe. Of course these moves alter their relationship, too, and it's impossible to untangle the impact of their nomadism from the impact of ordinary time. Both profound and simple, this wonderful novel is a timely exploration of migration, of the meanings of native and refugee, and of the deeply shared essence of humanity that binds us all beyond our apparent differences.
I must have been about 6 or 7 when I was in big trouble at school for refusing to read the books we were given, and disrupting lessons as a diversion. Janet and John's escapades were incredibly dull, I thought. My grandmother, and my mother must have got talking, because I shall never forget that first Wednesday evening when The Eagle landed on the mat at the front door. There was Dan Dare blasting off in the Anastasia to who knows where, with Digby and co, and I just had to know what they were saying in those speech bubbles. So I taught myself to read through SF, and interest in the genre, to varying degrees, stayed with me all my life. (As a matter of interest, I went from bottom of the class to top in reading, in less than a year!).
I read my first SF novel, Wells' "War of The Worlds", hiding in my bedroom in Lisbon, aged 14. Much of the SF I grew up on was about adventures in outer space, alien invasion, fear of the unknown, coming mainly through radio, TV, and comics. In the 80's, we had “Journey into Space” on the radio, and “Twilight Zone” on TV. The movies gave us “Them,” “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, ”Earth vs The Flying Saucers”, “Things To Come”, all about thrills and excitement. During the 90's and 2000's, more novels and short story collections began to appear, together with a number of blockbuster movies. But for most people in the Portugal, SF meant “Space 1999”, and “Star Trek”.
When I once again started attending The British Council, in the 1980's, many of the pupils were interested in SF, mainly because of the huge success of Hitchhiker's. You see, all through the twentieth century, the general message that ordinary folk got was that SF was light entertainment. Some of the bright "cool dudes" started talking enthusiastically about Asimov, Fred Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and the amusingly named Philip K. Dick. The lunchtime chats soon indicated to me I was way out of my depth, and so I realised if I was going to be of any use to them, I needed to get into some serious reading, and get beyond Hitchhiker's and Red Dwarf! Within a couple of years I had read the key authors, and was able to bring Robert Sheckley, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Joe Haldeman, and Christopher Priest to the table. Naturally there was a strong tie-in with some of my main subjects, and so we also got to see SF illustration work by the likes of Michael Whelan, H. R. Giger, Chris Foss, Jim Burns, Frank Frazetta, Rodney Matthews, Tim White, Patrick Woodroffe, and many more, and some of us also learned how to use the air brush.
It was like being into computers back in the day you were a geek or nerd. Now everyone is into it because you can shop and date. Everyone's into SF now because it's become mainstream Hollywood culture. But really most are not into it. It's sane to think about the universe and question it and wonder about it. Those who don't are dull. I think Arthur C. Clarke said those people haven't any soul. That's why I keep looking up at the stars. Is it possible to feel a real sense of otherness by books that tell of lies we have not told, fights we would not have, monsters we won’t face, murders we would not commit and accidents we probably won’t have? To admire universes that exist solely in our minds? Dangerous novels give us that frightening feeling of being so close to the Other; in SF like this it's not so ease to attach labels. That's the best kind of SF there is. “Exit West” makes me believe there's still hope for SF.
NB: Some people will never be able to enjoy SF on the same level as, say, D. H. Lawrence, because they are unable to suspend belief and enter a fantasy world. Strangely, I can take that genre on trust, but not so sword and sorcery. I love the artwork, but not the literature (with some exceptions).
SF = Speculative Fiction.
Interspersed with their story, the reader, is suddenly taken to Australia, to Kenya, to La Jolla, to Vienna, Amsterdam. Hold on what's going on here? How are these stories connected? By doors of course!
In a fashion very similar to that used by Colson Whitehead in Underground Railroad, Hamid uses a bit of magical realism to exemplify the movements of migrants around the world.
Yet, there is so much more to this little novel than that! As a mom, with a child off to college in the next few weeks, I found a rather poignant message within the pages and I suggest everyone give Exit West a read and discover something that rings true for you too.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a look at the situation of refugees, told through the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people living in an unnamed country that falls into civil war when religious extremists begin to take control. Saeed is quiet and devoted to his family and his faith. Nadia is adventurous and intent on forging her own path. Their relationship is cemented in the dangerous circumstances they find themselves in, eventually leading them to flee the country together, taking only what they can carry.
Hamid is using Nadia and Saeed as representatives of refugees, and their experiences are also representative of the whole. Which is not to say that Nadia and Saeed are not fully fleshed-out characters; it's a testament to Hamid's skill that they are very much real people. He's telling a story that's universal, but also specific. The country Saeed and Nadia flee is unnamed, while the places they end up (a Greek island, London, the outskirts of San Francisco) are both specific and act as stand-ins for the various welcomes a refugee might encounter. Hamid uses the device of doors opening into other places as the method Nadia and Saeed use to travel, and the places, while specific geographically, are imagined reactions to a country faced with a sudden influx of migrants.
Exit West is a brilliant novel and deserves to be widely read. It echoes The Underground Railroad in its use of an artificial construct used to move characters from one situation to another and in the way it makes the reader examine difficult issues. It's wonderfully constructed and written, in a way that seems effortless and natural.
Saeed and Nadia meet, forge a relationship, when their country erupts in violence, it becomes unlivable. They seek ways to leave, hire a coyote who is able to find doors, some literal but in this case fantastical, pay him, try to convince Saeed's father to come with, the only viable parent between the two, but he refuses, His dead wife is buried here, and this is his home. Eventually they will step through more doors, after each location losing a bit more of themselves. Trying to find a place where they feel they can exist. Refugees among many, they are not wanted, tarred and judged by those among them who are making trouble. All painted with the same brush. From a deserted mansion, to a tent city to the coast of California, they will travel, two among many, all seeking the same thing, continent to continent, all fleeing their own countries.
Although the description describes this as a bittersweet love story, it is not written emotionally, rather narrated by a omnipresent presence, in a rather matter of fact way. I liked this and didn't, the feelings and things described often seemed at a distance. The situation though is universal, important and timely and so it could be said that telling the story this way lets the reader form his or her own opinions. The magical realism, is used well as does not overtake the main message of the story, the refugees seeming to come from everywhere, so many war torn countries.
The ending, I loved, as mama bear said, "This one is just right."
ARC from Riverhead publisher.
Releases on March 7th.
At this point the story takes a dystopian turn, but like all good dystopian fiction the situations are realistic and believable. The doors are a device that allows people to cross borders with speed, but it seems like there’s more to this metaphor that I haven’t grasped yet. Mohsin Hamid’s writing is sublime. He uses Nadia and Saeed to illustrate situations common to refugees, regardless of their country of origin or the destination where they attempt to resettle. This gives the refugee crisis a human face, and shows the toll on one’s sense of self and relationships. The result is a beautifully written and important book.
And then they hear of magic doorways – secret exits to other countries. Desperate and afraid for their lives, they decide to pay a smuggler to get through the door. While Nadia doesn't have any family, Saeed's father decides to stay behind. Everyone know this means they will be unlikely to see each other again.
But refugee camps are chaotic places, not as safe or as hopeful as they imagined. There is a great deal of sadness as they can never return to their country, and the people they knew before are also lost to them. They decide to chance the magic doors as they move onward through other doors to find a safe, more permanent life.
Interesting and well written, I read this along with the March PBS/NYT Now Read This Book Club.
Hamid has a beautiful style of writing, telling us important parts of the story through observations rather than explicit words, changing writing styles to indicate pace and fear, and applying an interesting "magical" quality to doors - as I take it - to focus on the life of refugees trying to build/create a normal life, rather than the tragic/difficult experience of making a fleeing journey to a new place. It's clear that going through these "doors" is hard, they always arrive bruised, exhausted, and disoriented, but the focus is how they try to live in these new places with different aspects of surviving and adapting.
Once they did leave the country, the book lost all its charm for me. With the discovery of magical doors that instantly transport a person to another location, it becomes very easy for people to immigrate from a country they don't like to a new one in the hopes for a better life.
All I saw at this point, was how the shear overwhelming numbers of immigrants absolutely ruined these countries. First they travel to Greece, finding themselves with thousands of other refugees. Then its on to London, where the hundreds of thousands of refugees are destroying the land, taking over buildings to serve as their homes. What happened to the homes original owners? Do you think an established country can take this kind of strain on their services? Where do they expect to get food from? And for a good portion of the book, there is no plumbing available. Where does all the shit go?
Then they go to Marin county in California. And along with a huge influx of people, proceed to ruin that place too.
I get that some people want to immigrate to new countries. And in the war torn city at the beginning of the book, I understand because I would not want to be there either. But I can't see this book as pro immigration. To me it just hilites the horror that uncontrolled immigration would be.
This novel is short but not shallow, melancholy yet hopeful, topical but only rarely preachy, polished if not spare.
The author's tone is pleasantly understated, his descriptions clear, taut, and immediate, his use of metaphors minimal. The plot moves rapidly, the contours of the story unfolding broadly but assuredly; however the narrative tone gives an impression of slowness, an impression of time dilating as a result of the reader always perfectly inhabiting the moment being described. The tone also reminds me of a fable, and despite most recommendations about writing, the author succeeds in advancing his tale by telling rather than just showing. The magic element is both immediately and subtly integrated into the book (from the very first chapter), such that I didn't really notice it until it creates a dramatic change in the lives of the main protagonists.
The initial setting reminded me of the film, Incendies, mostly for the way it handled a fictional Middle Eastern city at a moment of crisis. It also brought to mind William T. Vollmann's stories "Escape" and "Listening to the Shells" which both contain a story-within-a-story about a pair of Romeo-and-Juliet-inspired lovers in Sarajevo and the impact their lives/deaths have or fail to have on the characters of the two larger stories. Despite these similarities, overall, Exit West is ultimately a quiet Romance, not a Tragedy.
Exit West is the shortest of this year's nominees. Unfortunately, I think this is its greatest flaw. While the settings and language are all written in vivid detail, the characters and relationships suffer from the novel's brevity. Despite their strong potential as characters, Saeed and Nadia never seemed fully developed to me. There could've been another fifty pages exploring these characters, a hundred pages developing their stories; instead, their journey is presented in a story that takes only a few hours to read. The further their journey took Saeed and Nadia, the more distant I felt from them.
There's also a bit of disconnect in Hamid's device of using magical doors to journey from one country into another. I see the potential in the story for such a device. I see how it could also free up the author some. I'm not going to argue against the author's choice to use it. Personally, it just added a second level of disconnect. The stakes were not high enough. There was a sense that anytime things were about to get really bad, they could hop on a magical door and journey to some place that was a little better. If only this were true.
In most ways, I think Exit West was a great novel. Unfortunately, where it was lacking was perhaps the most significant: it was light on heart. I was mesmerized by the language, entranced by the scenery, and stimulated by the questions implied, but I never felt much for the characters themselves. And for a story which promises to be a love story, I'm not convinced they felt much for one another.
Man Booker Prize 2017:
Though this will not be my favorite amongst this year's nominees, I see Exit West as a potential winner. Its presentation of the migrant issue tied with its gorgeous prose and fast-moving plot make it a very strong contender. Of the book's I've read so far, this one has, in my opinion, the greatest likelihood of going all the way. I'll be surprised if it doesn't make the shortlist, but I've been surprised before.
What do I think about it? It reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; I read many pages before realizing that this book is not realistic fiction. Like Never Let Me Go, I felt jarred by the intrusion of the science fiction elements.
I wasn’t ever deeply invested in the relationship between the man and the woman, though I was taken with the woman’s brave ventures out in a closed-off world. I liked how the author allowed the characters explore their native culture before war, their native culture after war, and an alien culture.
It won’t be on my best of 2018 books, but it was completely fresh and it felt completely true and those are wonderful things for stories.
It is compelling writing nevertheless and resolves in a hopeful way. Your appreciation will likely depend on how much you are distracted by the transition and how quickly you can resolve and accept it. But you will read on regardless. The 3 rating is another one of my compromise votes as this shifted from a 5 beginning to a 1 middle to a 5 conclusion.