Exit West

Once again, Frances, Meredith, Nicole, Rebecca, and I (aka the WoMan Booker Shadow Panel) are reading the Man Booker longlist together (or as many as we can get to). I read The Underground Railroad a while ago, so this is my second book from the longlist.

In an unnamed city on the brink of war, two young people named Nadia and Saeed fall in love. Nadia, who wears a body-covering robe not out of religious conviction but for protection from men, left her family to get her own apartment and go to school. Saeed is more devout, praying as his parents taught him, but he’s not so strict that he won’t listen to music and smoke weed with Nadia. The two first meet in an evening class that they both take, and through coffee and conversation, Saeed wins over Nadia.

Of the couple’s steps into romance, Mohsin Hamid writes,

It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering abut our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.

It was striking to me how long ordinary life went on for Saeed and Nadia. With every step that the war took toward their homes, they made small adjustments. Eventually, however, small adjustments weren’t enough.

Their story is interspersed with short vignettes showing people stepping through doors. These doors, it turns out, have mysteriously begun appearing around the world, and refugees are using them to escape. And when Saeed and Nadia learn of these doors, they decide they have to try to use one. And then another…

This is the second book the I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker longlist, and it bears some resemblances to the first, The Underground Railroad. In both books, the author uses an impossible portal to move his characters from one sort of world to another. In The Underground Railroad, Cora ends up moving from one piece of America’s racist past to another, almost seeming to move through time. In Exit West, Hamid tears down borders, bringing waves of refugees to the heart of London and, later, California.

Hamid’s story focuses not just on the difficult conditions refugees face but on how the circumstances stretch the people experiencing them and their relationships with each other. In a way, war brings Saeed and Nadia together, and it keeps them together longer than they might have been. And that’s not a bad thing. They clearly love each other, but what isn’t clear is whether it’s an enduring love or a transitory one.

I was absorbed in the main story, and I thought the portals from one place to another worked well. That little bit of unreality allows Hamid to speculate on how countries that are able to distance themselves from the refugee crisis would respond. But, more important I think, he’s speculating on how people come together. He spends very little time on the political responses, focusing instead on the refugees’ day-to-day experiences. These refugees are from all over, and they form their own societies because they have to. And it’s ultimately an optimistic book, I think, about how people can come together.

I’m still mulling the vignettes about other doors, with other unnamed characters worked. I found some of these, frankly, confusing to read because they came out of nowhere and offered barely a glimpse into these other situations. If they were going to be there at all, I wanted more of them. More of each story, and perhaps more stories.

On the whole, however, I liked this book a lot. The writing is delicate and lovely, even when writing about great pain. I think that’s because it is ultimately a hopeful book about the power of connection, rather than an expose of the pain (like The Underground Railroad). There’s room for both types of books, I think, and I’m glad that both exist. I might rank this slightly higher than Underground Railroad because of the characters, but I’d be happy to see either make the Booker shortlist.

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11 Responses to Exit West

  1. aartichapati says:

    I just read this book, too! I also really liked it and the shorter vignettes about strangers in different parts of the world. I have enjoyed everything by Hamid I’ve read, he’s excellent.

    • Teresa says:

      This is the first of his books that I’ve read. I’m looking forward to more. The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been on my list for years.

  2. Sunita says:

    I had a similar reaction to yours. I liked the book a lot, and I thought the portals worked well as a device, emphasizing how much of the journey continues after the arrival as opposed to focusing on the difficulty of the journey itself. I thought the first half of the book was brilliant and the second half not as strong, especially the last section in California. But overall I’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree that the California sections weren’t as gripping as the rest, but I did like how the breakup was handled in that last section. I didn’t want it to be bitter or angry, and it wasn’t. It was just that they’d finally gotten time and space to breathe and realize they had other options.

  3. I am currently reading this book and I didn’t read your entire review with the fear of spoilers ..

  4. I too found the first half stronger and was a little disoriented by the post portal sections and the glimpses into other worlds, it made me try to analyse mid reading too much to figure out the significance. I’d recently read Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses also about displacement, a novel that also moved from place to place with files fleeing conflict, one whose message was more easily absorbed for me.

    • Teresa says:

      I think I would have liked the other glimpses more if they’d been set off from the story more. But maybe the disorientation was intentional. The portals interrupted the structure of the world, so maybe they have to interrupt the story.

  5. I absolutely loved this. It was my first read of Hamid’s books. I read this in almost one sitting, which is so rare for me. But I felt totally absorbed and pulled along by the story and the beautiful writing. I felt similarly enthralled by Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I think you’re right about this one being more optimistic. I hope they’re both on the short list!

    • Teresa says:

      I read this in just two sittings. It was very absorbing! So far (with just three read), this is a strong list for the Booker. And I still have books by some favorite authors (McGregor, Smith, Smith) left to read.

  6. Books Under the Bed says:

    I just finished reading it and also found the vignettes a little unnecessary as they weren’t elaborated on. Also, like some people have expressed above I wasn’t so keen on the second half. Great review.

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