Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 31, 2017

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West, the fourth novel of Mohsin Hamid who was shortlisted for the Man Booker for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has been widely reviewed but it’s hard to do it justice.  It is a superb novel.  I loved the feeling of reading it yet sometimes I was almost overcome by emotion.   Books don’t often do that to me!

Nadia and Saeed are ordinary people in an ordinary city, but their circumstances become far from ordinary.   Their love story is a fable for our times.

Their un-named city is an Islamic city but as the story opens it’s one where women can choose to cover or not, and Saeed can have carefully maintained designer stubble rather than a full beard.

Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something. (p.1)

Nadia is not religious – she doesn’t even pray in times of crisis – but she covers herself to avoid being pestered by men.  This choice, however, does not save her from the deep disapproval of her conservative family when she elected to move out of the family home and live alone in an apartment, supporting herself with her job as an accountant.  Angry and harsh words are spoken in a rift that the narrator foreshadows will never be healed.  Partly from stubbornness, partly from bafflement about how to reconcile, and partly because of the impending descent of their city into the abyss.  This city could be Kabul, or it could be any of the cities captured by ISIS, ordinary cities that have lost that status due to fundamentalist Islam.

With the city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not openly at war, Nadia and Saeed meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding.   Before long Nadia and Saeed are intimate with each other although they stop short of having sex – because Saeed wants to wait until they are married.  Ironically, given the fundamentalist Islamic strictures imposed on the areas captured, it’s the fighting that finally makes Nadia agree to move in with his family for safety.  Theirs are a small, middle-class, educated families: Saeed’s mother was a teacher and his father is a retired professor.  Respectable sleeping arrangement are made in their small home and the parents begin to call Nadia ‘daughter’.  But the couple find these arrangements a strain, signalling the first of many shifts in the nature of their relationship.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

When Saeed’s mother is killed in an unexpected, grisly way, they decide to leave.  They have heard about doors opening to safe places elsewhere.   In the event, Saeed’s father refuses to go.  He wants to stay with his memories of his much-loved wife, near people he knows.  But he wants Nadia and Saeed to have a future and in the end they agree to go without him.

The author sidesteps the mechanics of flight by the metaphor of the doors.  Maybe Hamid thought that readers are sick of reading about desperate flights from horror, or maybe he didn’t want to waste book space retelling a complex journey.  Maybe he wanted the focus to be solely on what happens when refugees arrive in a world new to them.  Whatever, the way it works – in places all over his fictional world including Australia – refugees step through a door known only to the people smugglers and then open another to find themselves somewhere new – skipping danger, detention camps and paperwork entirely.   For Nadia and Saeed, these doors open to a beach in Mykonos, a mansion in London and, later, a hippyish sort of place in California.  It’s a clever device.

Nadia and Saeed emerge into a house so luxurious that they think it’s a 5-star hotel, the implication being that in London there are people so rich and who own so many properties that they can leave vacant a huge house capable of sheltering fifty families.  And there are houses like this all over London, as London soon finds out when hordes of refugees occupy Chelsea, Kensington and Earl’s Court.  Large open spaces like Hyde Park become a tent city, and eventually the authorities respond by trying to entice the refugees into detention centres outside the city.  When they won’t go, the electricity is cut off, rendering the city a Dark London and a Light London.

As the water runs dry and food becomes scarce, the refugees form gender-separated action groups.  Nadia feels uncomfortable about the division but joins the women’s group because it is pragmatic.  They ration the food while the men’s group issues Saeed with a gun that he doesn’t know how to use.  They think they need the guns because at this time the government has lost control of the situation and far right ‘nativists’ are threatening violence to get rid of the refugees and send them back.

Nadia empathises with these nativists who are threatening to kill them because she thinks they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees.  Saeed remonstrates that their country was overrun by millions arriving during the war, but she says that’s different.  Theirs was a poor country, while London has more to lose.

(I don’t think that people are frightened by the numbers.  I think that what people really fear is that these refugees are bringing a joyless, inflexible religion with them, and maybe the contagion of the militants too, so that the host country’s own freedoms will become compromised.  Part of Hamid’s agenda in this book is to show that people like Nadia and Saeed are ordinary people with relaxed attitudes to religion and other social mores so they bring nothing with them for anyone to fear.   They are, after all, fleeing the fundamentalists as much as the danger.  But I think he undercuts this message a bit with Nadia covering herself in a way that conflicts with western feminist dress freedoms, with her having to submit to the gender-separated groups and with Saeed being pressured by armed refugees in a city where gun violence is not the norm.)

Hamid writes sensitively about the couple’s love:

Nadia watched Saeed and not for the first time wondered if she had led him astray.  She thought maybe he had in the end been wavering about leaving their city, and she thought maybe she could have tipped him either way, and she thought he was basically a good and decent man, and she was filled with compassion for him in that instant, as she observed his face with his gaze upon the rain, and she realised she had not in her life felt so strongly for anyone in the world as she had for Saeed in the moments of those first months when she had felt most strongly for him.

Saeed for his part wished he could do something for Nadia, could protect her from what would come, even if he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being to protect what is most valuable to you.  (pp.162-3)

The denouement is bitter-sweet, both uplifting and sorrowful.  I loved this book, and I want everyone to read it.  (Especially our politicians).

Author: Mohsin Hamid
Title: Exit West
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House UK), 2017
ISBN: 9780241290088
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Exit West

 


Responses

  1. Nice review – I also really enjoyed the book as well as Hamid’s first, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

    I felt the doors were kind of magical and beautifully done. It’s not necessary for the reader to know the intricacies of escape – just that there were secret places where the very fortunate could access a means.

    I have to agree with Nadia that the sheer numbers of Muslims seem to be a threat to the nativists but yes, the refugees are shown as normal people escaping a horrendous situation. Still, Nadia conforms with her covering as does Saeed with the gun because not to do so might cut them off from their group which they need for food, shelter and protection.

    I also loved the ending – I thought it was incredibly realistic.

    • And the way he writes about it, despite it all he never loses a sense of optimism… it’s just beautiful…

      The conforming? Yes, you are right, so it’s realistic, but there’s no doubt that many people find it alienating. It’s that sense in which I meant it undercuts his message.

  2. I don’t think resistance to refugees is anything to do with their religion, we’ve resisted every single group of refugees that ever came here, starting with Irish Catholics. It’s not even the first time that the press has sided with the ‘nativists’, think about the demonising of Chinese in the 1890s.
    Re the unnamed city, Kabul and Baghdad have been lost due to war (wars we started) but what also saddens me is formerly cosmopolitan cities like Beruit (hardly in the news these days), Tehran, Jakarta which are being lost to fundamentalism in reaction to our own noisy ‘Christian’ fundamentalism.
    (What do I think resistance is to do with? Populism stirred up by politicians for their own ends. For all that I despise Malcolm Fraser, think how well we did when politicians supported (Vietnamese) refugees, or Sudanese today for that matter.)

    • *chuckle* These are big issues, but I must disagree with you about Kabul. It was a modern, cosmopolitan city before the Taliban, and the educated, sophisticated women I met (through school) grieved for the freedoms and opportunities that they lost when the Taliban took over. (The Soviets, for all their faults, believed in education and opportunities for women because they regarded them as economic units, just like the men).
      Religious fundamentalism was being imposed Kabul long before the first American bombs were dropped, it’s just that nobody took any notice or cared about it until 9/11. After that, rhetoric about women’s rights was used to engage women’s support for the war, but it’s just a smokescreen for the real reasons.

  3. Sounds excellent. I’ve read a couple of books by this author — The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke — both of which I enjoyed. I’ll keep a lookout for this when the paperback arrives. (I am so not a hardback girl!)

    • I don’t like them either, too hard to read in bed (especially if you fall asleep with the book and you poke yourself in the eye!)


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