Book review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is originally from Pakistan, but it is clear from the Exit West dust jacket information that he can relate to migrancy:

Born in Lahore, he (Hamid) has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York and California.”
(Dust jacket of 2017 Riverhead Books hardcover edition of Exit West)

I read Exit West over the course of one day as I travelled to New York City. This story of two people, Nadia and Saeed, forced to travel from their homeland because of civil war contrasted starkly with my own quite luxurious journey. The hardship and deprivation they suffered at times was made bearable by Hamid’s prose. Nadia and Saeed endured their journeys, and so I did also. This is a story that dignifies the lives of migrants seeking a better, peaceful life.

One element of Exit West that was striking is that two of the places Nadia and Saeed travelled to were Western tourist destinations: Mykonos and London. The author allows the reader to glimpse the separation between the tourist and the migrant. Nadia and Saeed contemplate this at one point in Mykonos:

“…they carried their loads like trekkers in the wilderness and walked along the beaches and up the hills and right to the edges of the cliffs, and they decided that Mykonos was indeed a beautiful place, and they could understand why people might come here…” (page 113)

The persistent metaphor of this novels is doors. Twice Hamid has his two travelers entering a door as they leave each point of origin and emerging from darkness into their new location. These first two times, neither Nadia or Saeed knows where they are going and so, as they emerge, there is a period of disorientation. Both in Mykonos and then in London, Nadia and Saeed find a way to manage relatively well. For their third journey, Nadia and Saeed choose not only to leave, but they also choose where they are going: Marin County near San Francisco – to the United States. Because they have been successful in their two previous journeys, both are hopeful about their move to the United States.

But the other concept that Hamid illustrates in Exit West is that relationships can change meaning and purpose. After their three significant moves together, Nadia and Saeed begin to move apart as if leaving had been, after all, the purpose of their relationship:

“All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields, and slipping away from other people too, people they had in some cases loved, as Nadia was slipping away from Saeed, and Saeed from Nadia.” (page 213)

Exit West is a gently told story of migrants and their struggles and a reminder of the great courage it takes to leave the places that are, or become, home. The beautiful writing helped me understand a small part of what migrants face, and I will read all their stories differently henceforth.

(Note: All page references are for the 2017 Riverhead Books hardcover edition of Exit West.)