Saturday, 14 October 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid    {Reviewed by STELLA}
I have been a fan of Moshin Hamid’s writing since I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a clever look at a hostage situation through the conversation between the captive and the captor. His latest book, Exit West, has also made the Man Booker shortlist and I’m not surprised to see his work there. An observant writer of human nature, especially in situations of chaos or crisis, he cleverly weaves in ambiguities and humour, drawing you into the world of his characters without fuss. This was tellingly so in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia - set in India it’s a remarkable cradle-to-grave story, rags-to-riches tale that wraps an impossible love obsession into the mix with candour and black humour. Hamid has the knack of taking you into the hearts and minds of his characters in a candid manner and lightly, yet precisely, making you aware of politics and contemporary societal issues. So I was anticipating more of this social realism. And Exit West is this, but also more. Set somewhere in the middle east, possibly Syria, we meet the young lovers Saeed and Nadia. Saeed works for an advertising firm, is moderately religious and lives with his parents. Nadia works at a bank, unusually lives alone in a small rooftop apartment, is not in the least religious but wears a full black robe (mostly so she is left alone and doesn’t draw attention to herself) and rides a motorcycle. As their relationship flourishes so too do the militants, gaining more control in the neighbourhoods where they live. People leave, others don’t return from holidays or work trips. After a short time, Saeed and Nadia find themselves out of work, watching their backs and keeping their heads down, obeying the new rules. After Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bomb, they decide to leave their home country. So this a refugee story, yet it is not a story of the journey, but much more a story about being elsewhere. Curiously, Hamid uses an interesting magical realism element - the idea of doors: doors that start appearing and are portals to other places. They are black, very black doors, that one pays a ‘door agent’ a fee to be taken to and then walks through. During this transfer to the other side there is an element of being stunned, struggling through, but this is instantaneous. I found this aspect unusual, but intriguing, and I would be curious to know why Hamid chose this metaphor for the struggle of the journey, which we see and hear so much about in our media - but maybe this is precisely the reason. Nadia and Saeed find themselves in Mykonos and while the island is beautiful it is crowded and dangerous and they feel a need for something more. Next is London, squatting in an empty and grand house in a wealthy suburb along with other refugees from far and wide. Saeed feel himself more and more disconnected from his home country, and becomes more devout in his grief of leaving his father, family and friends. He finds it increasingly difficult to relate the other cultures, whereas Nadia is more open and curious and is accepted by the elders of the house as they try to organise themselves within the chaos, find enough food and keep the authorities and ‘native’ Britons at bay. The political relevance of Exit West is obvious, and Hamid is writing in the midst of growing intolerance, increasing numbers of refugees and the social fallout and uncertainty of Brexit. As Saeed is drawn increasingly to his own people and in particular a house where they are devoutly Muslim, it feels like this may be the end of the relationship under increasing strain in the struggle to survive and the couple’s different ways of coping with change. Yet Hamid doesn’t take the option of making Saeed an extremist or Nadia throwing off her own culture, which could have been a predictable conclusion. He takes them again through another black door, this time to America. The novel is primarily a story about the breakdown of borders, about the disintegration of nation-states as we know them. It’s also about the struggle to belong, to survive in chaos, and it is surprisingly hopeful.

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