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Exit West Hardcover – 7 Mar 2017
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Go for it, there is no book more timely than this one.
And yet Hamid tells his story in a world where politics, civilization itself, rides on nationalism -- vigilantism --fundamentalism. There are no givens anymore, nor freedoms, nor choices. But as Hamid ends his story, the deserts in Chile may still revel in the stars.
Coetzee had begun the refugee/immigrant story in the boyhood of Jesus. These stories have only begun.
Truly extraordinary book from Mohsin Hamid.
As Saeed and Nadia move through Mykonos, London and California, it becomes increasingly evident that the cities they live in now are not too disparate from the city they left behind as nativist paranoia makes survival a daily challenge. As the hostility in the environment grows, they are pushed towards the peripheries of existence, bartering clothes for food and food for medicines, in what seems like an endless cycle of exploitation and depravity.
Thus, it does not seem surprising when we see that even the most basic and simple things take a grotesque shape for people living under such vile conditions; for instance, it’s the death of Nadia’s cousin that cements her relationship with Saeed. In fact, it is violence that brings them close together and stability that tears them apart eventually.
Hamid ends the novel on a sanguine note, as the protagonists meet years later in the country they had to exit suddenly, a glimmer of hope revived and reclaimed regarding the future. In an interview with The Guardian, Hamid had insisted on the importance of a hopeful ending, expressing that “putting forth an optimistic vision like that makes that vision, in some small way, more likely to come true.” //
What makes this love story so intriguing is its exploration of the varied ways in which individuals cope with the challenges of refugee life. The male lead, Saeed, is close to his parents, who are professionals, at the beginning of the story. He’s been raised in a middle-class devout but moderate Muslim household. Saeed seeks out his own people and takes solace not only in Islam, but in the culture of his countrymen more generally. His girlfriend, Nadia, is on the outs with her family because she moved out on her own and she was too modern and progressive for the tastes of her traditional family. She’s a non-believer, and the religion and culture with which she was raised are objects she is more than willing to put in her rear-view mirror. (To make it interesting, Nadia wears the burka, not because she is devout, but because it’s somewhat successful at keeping the guys from pawing her. This makes her appear devout, when she is anything but.) Nadia tries to assimilate into whatever community she finds herself. What begins as a comfortable “opposites attract” set of differences becomes an ever-widening chasm as the two are exposed to the stresses of refugee life.
This book is written in a sparse style. It does a lot of telling versus showing. However, that seems to work because some of what it does show the reader is so visceral that some straight-forward exposition of the character’s feelings forms a palate cleanser. The story is specifically vague about how the characters move from place to place. This is clearly on purpose to capture the nature of refugee travel, which is so different from the looking out windows and snapping photos that ordinary travelers do. It also allows the author to portray the refugee routes as portals that open and close on different locales as authorities on either end shut them down. They aren’t the firmly established transportation corridors ordinary travelers move through, but rather ephemeral windows of opportunity.
There are little vignettes about individuals apparently unrelated to the story in each chapter. Through them, I think the author just wishes to convey the global nature of this phenomenon. I didn’t find these bits added much, but the also didn’t take up much space or time, and so didn’t detract from the story.
I enjoyed this story. It reads clearly and quickly, and has a nice tight theme and story arc. I’d recommend it for fiction reads, particularly those interested in a story about being a refugee in the modern world.
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