Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful novel Exit West, recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017, strikes an extraordinary balance between depicting life in a country ravaged by war and a city swollen by refugees and the beauty of a love story between two young people and the choices they make to better their lives.
Saeed and Nadia meet as friends in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, although one cannot help but picture Syria, Afghanistan or Irak of today and decades past.
“Neighbourhoods fell to the militants in startlingly quick succession, so that Saeed’s mother’s mental map of the place where she had spent her entire life now resembled an old quilt, with patches of government land and patches of militant land. The frayed seams between the patches were the most deadly spaces, and to be avoided at all costs.”
It seems unimaginable to those of us fortunate enough to live in peace, but as the number of refugees from other towns, cities and villages increases and the bombings draw nearer, Nadia and Saeed go on with their lives at work, at university, because what else can you do?
Meanwhile, they start hearing of mysterious black doors appearing. Lines form outside closets and doorways allowing residents to step through to other countries and better lives, promising peace and a hopeful future.
Our young couple decides, after agonizing about what is left behind and whether what is promised is worth more than what is lost, to open first one then multiple doors which take them in turn to faraway places such as Mykonos, Vienna, London and Mill Valley, California.
This allows not only for a lovely fable-like quality to the writing, but also for Hamid to broach many of the issues brought on by the multiple crisis of today, such as the pro- and anti refugee movements across Europe and the promise of a better life in an America increasingly marked by inequality.
“Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of co-existence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done.”
But Exit West is much more than a gifted novelist depicting the urgency of our times. The black doors are also there for forgotten lovers, for dreamers of all kinds, of all ages and all nationalities to move forward or return for a second chance at what life had once promised but they had perhaps squandered.
“…..and both would also wonder if this meant that they had made a mistake, that if they had but waited and watched their relationship would have flowered again, and so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgia are born”.
War and the politics of displacement are indeed serious topics that could so easily have resulted in a heavy book and while the sense of the surreal evoked by the black doors can sound daunting, Exit West is far from heavy and the black doors quickly become completely plausible and even natural.
Exit West has a lightness and a beautiful poetic quality that makes you feel like you are traveling - almost floating - alongside Nadia and Saeed through the doors, across continents, that you live with them on the beaches of Mykonos, while they take refuge in designated apartment buildings in London and as their relationship takes a quiet turn in the green hillside communities of Marin County. You feel as though you are right there marching alongside Nadia as she protests violence against migrants and that you are seated beside Saeed and the other young men as they grapple with the idea of violence, arms and terrorism.
Exit West starts in one corner of the globe and with engaging and artful prose makes its way across countries and expands to encompass a world of emotions, experiences and encounters.
I highly recommend going along for the ride.