Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books, 2017
Exquisitely beautiful and serene are the first words that come to mind, having turned the last page of this book on this first day of 2018. A bittersweet and melancholy love story. A love affair that manifests between two people, quietly and unceremoniously, through time and place. Nadia is fiercely independent and alone, alienated from her family. Saeed is a devoted son, shy and timid in the ways of love. Their relationship begins simultaneously with civil unrest in their unnamed country. And their love blooms slowly and tenderly as they find solace in each other amidst the chaos and oppression of their war-torn nation.
When they get wind of rumors of magical doors serving as portals to other places, their joint search for an escape route binds their love. As they embrace an opportunity to step through to another world, they find themselves as refugees amidst a sea of refugees — Saaed with remorse at the family he left behind, and Nadia with a passion for freedom and change. And it is here where we see their relationship bend and twist, grow and drift.
And this is where the tenderness comes in to play. Hamid’s approach is soft and subtle. He avoids drama and pulls the story forward with a quiet finesse that is characteristic of both Saeed and Nadia. By avoiding the harsh realities and tenuous treks that real-life refugees must endure, the ease of the doorway portals allow Hamid to focus on the psychological toll that refugees face. Brilliant.
As Saeed and Nadia continue to seek out new doors and new lands, we grasp the impact of each migration on each of their distinct personalities. Whereas nostalgic Saeed seeks solace with prayer and comfort around people from his birth country, Nadia finds this oppressive, and is always searching for a new community and a new tribe. Torn between a feeling of commitment for all that they have been through together, and a silent pact to look after each other, their differences take them farther and farther apart as they seek and find connection in separate places.
This is more than just a story of exile. While Hamid’s story is one that awakens in us the fear of losing the comfort and safety of a peaceful nation, it also serves to remind us that one doesn’t have to become displaced to become a refugee. You can become adrift simply by losing your anchor, whether that be a person or place. For we find Saeed and Nadia became unmoored even as they became more established in their new environments. Their reluctance to reach out to each other leaves them adrift, even as they become grounded in their new community.
Exit West was certainly a beautiful way to enter into the New Year. May you all find your anchor – be it person, place or thing — in 2018.
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