[Review] “A Refugee Love Story: Moshin Hamid’s Exit West” by Swathi Parasuraman

{Written by Swathi Parasuraman, this review is part of Issue 42 (January 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, Hamish Hamilton, 2017. 240 pgs.

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I remember reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist two years ago. At the time, I didn’t know it had been shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker prize, neither did I know a movie had been made based on it. The title was just so intriguing, and I seemed to recall having read about it in an in-flight magazine. So I bought it from a second-hand book store with hardly a glance at the author’s name.

As I read through it, what struck me the most was not just the story, but how lyrical the words sounded in my head, and how beautifully simple the writing was, even though the novel dealt with the identity crisis, loneliness and disillusionment of a Pakistani man trying to make it in the West. I was soon hooked and finished the book with a feeling that I had stumbled onto a gem. I looked the author up and learnt that he was Pakistani, and that his specialty was weaving stories that offered a glimpse into worlds seldom written about, such as life in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries and the experiences of immigrants abroad , at times of political, economic and social upheaval.

Mohsin Hamid released Exit West in mid-2017. Past echoes of his writing immediately came back to me, and I wasted no time in acquiring this book as well. I started reading it late one evening, tucked into bed with a blanket around me.

Exit West is set in modern times, in an unnamed city in the midst of a civil war. It centres on a couple, Nadia and Saeed, who meet and start something akin to a romance. Soon a civil war threatens to consume their city, and they are forced to flee together. They end up escaping to places around the globe, trying to set up a life in each before they are forced to flee again. The novel follows their developing relationship, their internal as well as external journeys, their struggles and their own contrasting ideas and personalities. The overall themes of the book are of emigration and refugee crises (seemingly related to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis), quite apt for the age we are in presently.

Now, I’ll get to the unique aspect of the story. Refugees flee from their countries, usually either on foot or by sea. Their journeys are arduous, dangerous, and there are many who lose their lives in the process. Here, the author has used fictitious doors as a metaphor for these journeys. Nadia and Saeed, along with the other refugees from different countries, all pass through doors in order to leave one place and enter another. From their city to Mykonos. From Mykonos to London. From London to California. And so on. These doors can pop up anywhere, from a hotel bathroom to someone’s bedroom. Agents learn of the door’s existence, hide it from militants and accept payment from citizens wishing safe passage. They are similar to agents peddling visas. This touch of surrealism is not at all out of place in the universe of the book. It is accepted, reported and written about as normal—a refugee problem which needs to be curbed and magical doors that need to be found and blocked. The metaphor provides a parallel to our own world, in which people flee dangerous situations but end up living in limbo, not really a part of any country but somewhere in between, waiting for permission to live their lives freely as born-again citizens.

In the beginning of the novel, Nadia lives alone in a small apartment and is a free, independent, modern woman. Saeed, an relatively average white-collar worker, lives with his parents and is more conservative. Of the two characters, I found Nadia to be more distinctive and compelling while Saeed seemed to blend into the background for the most part. Their love story is complex and delves into how people mould and change, a result of the pressures around them, and how love can be born from a deep reliance on someone else during trying times:

Neither talked much of drifting apart, not wanting to inflict the fear of abandonment, while also themselves quietly feeling that fear, the fear of the severing of their tie, the end of the world they had built together, a world of shared experiences in which no one else would share, and a sense that what they might break was special and likely irreplaceable.

The book’s third-person narrative carries a strong message, pointing to the innumerable struggles that refugees face: the distrust and hate displayed towards them by nativists, their constant fear of being uprooted and the survival skills they are forced to learn. Sometimes, it feels as though even the safe haven they hope to take refuge in seems no different to the dangers they have left behind:

The fury of those nativists advocating wholesale slaughter was what struck Nadia the most, and it struck her because it seemed so familiar, so much like the fury of the militants in her own city. She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the reality of their predicament had not.

The fragility of human life is constantly alluded to. The author brilliantly manages to strike a chord of empathy that resonates with readers, by portraying some gentle moments of compassion.

One thing I do notice with Mohsin Hamid’s books is that his sentences are extremely long, punctuated with and’s, but’s and many, many commas. I was always taught at school to use full stops and separate sentences. I’m an obsessive-compulsive reader, so I thought it would bother me when I started reading. It did a bit to be honest. But surprisingly, the sentences blended well together soon, and I didn’t even notice after the first few pages. I think if a writer can break rules and still manage to capture an audience, it’s a mark of special talent.

Overall, I enjoyed Exit West for its fluid writing style, unique storyline and humane touch. It was rightly one of the six shortlisted books for the 2017 Man Booker Prize as well as one of The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2017. I highly recommend it to my fellow book-lovers.

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Swathi Parasuraman is a content writer, who lives and works in the city of Bangalore. Having grown up in both Japan and India, she uses writing, primarily fiction pieces, poetry and personal essays as an outlet for her Asian multiculturalism. She is also a great lover of books and theatre. She has acted, directed and written a script for the stage. Some of her best loved authors include Kazuo Ishiguro, Harper Lee, Mohsin Hamid, Haruki Murakami and Jean Rhys. On her off days, you can find her browsing in a dusty bookstore or typing away at her laptop in a quiet coffee shop.

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