Book Review: Exit West By Mohsin Hamid
"Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians."
Exit West begins in an unnamed but recognizable country, in the very near future. It could be Syria, Pakistan, or any strongly religious country with growing political unrest. By removing the cultural specificity, readers don't have to worry about historical details and are less likely to be biased. The vague setting also made it easier to imagine myself in the position of Saeed and Nadia, the main characters, who fall in love and then become refugees after militants overtake their country.
They meet in a night class on corporate identity and product branding. Saeed is more traditional and lives at home with his parents, "as was the case in those days in his city with most independent-minded, grown men, unmarried, with decent posts and good educations." Nadia is free thinking, went against her conservative family's wishes to move into her own apartment, and rides a motorcycle.
Their relationship starts with coffee and lots of texting, a path familiar to Millennials everywhere. But from the beginning there are warnings of impending disaster. There is also something mysterious happening: in locations all over the world, people enter formerly mundane doors to closets or offices and emerge in an entirely different location.
This is the one magical element in an otherwise realistic story. The device allows the author to address migration and globalization in a fresh, creative way. Since people can change their location instantly, large numbers begin leaving poor and war torn countries and flooding richer ones. The rich countries begin "building walls and fences and strengthening their borders, but seemingly to unsatisfactory effect." Rich countries like Britain and the United States are forced to deal with the masses of refugees whom they cannot prevent from entering.
Hamid’s writing is poetic, with long clause-filled sentences and repetitive structures. Almost every passage is insightful and worth savoring. The book is fairly short (under 300 pages) and every element serves the whole. Nadia and Saeed are very relatable and recognizable characters. Perceptive observations about romantic and familial relationships drew me into the story, and I imagined myself in their place, wondering how I would feel in the same situation.
While the personal side of the story kept me eagerly reading, Hamid asks many deep questions about religion, technology, migration, and the future of the world, leading the reader to think about nations, borders, and the very concept of “natives.” Sometimes brief interludes illustrate these ideas. For example, one section describes the many changes an old woman has seen take place in her city while living in the same house. Progress moves quickly now and is unavoidable, the interlude suggests, so the ability to adapt is essential.
Overall, Exit West presents a realistic yet optimistic view of the future. Human history is based on migration, and if it truly is inevitable, what is the best way to deal with it? While recognizing that hardship may be unavoidable in the changes to come, the story also celebrates our human resourcefulness and caring. Whether you are a reader who enjoys perceptive writing about modern relationships, or you want to ponder issues with contemporary relevance in a new light, this is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and highly recommended book.
Exit West is available in print or as an eBook at the St. Joseph County Public Library.