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.