There are times when a novel arrives about a topic that is just plucked from the headlines. The novel has a way of speaking to the topic that, up until that point in time, had been missing from the conversation. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is one of those books. Currently long listed for the Man Booker, this novel is at its core two stories: 1. a refugee tale of people fleeing from countries that are in turmoil. and 2. a story of a relationship and how time and experiences change who we are as people.
Saeed and Nadia, the couple at the center of our story, meet in an unnamed country that is going through a civil war. Their relationship starts as infatuation for one, and builds into a cautious love. And as it builds, the country around them crumbles. The premise of the book is that around the world these door start to appear. The book never explains how or why, just that they do. If you walk through the door you find yourself in a different country, heading west.
As you can imagine, due to the greedy nature of mankind, different groups want to control these doors and use them for monetary gain. However, for many the become an escape from the horrid places and terrible situations. Saeed and Nadia suffer through tragedy, and then pay to exit their county in hopes of a new world. In doing so, both of them make the choice to leave the life they know and those they love behind. As Hamid says "When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind." I find this to be the underlying tragedy that the novel is attempting to make real for people. And it could not be stated any more eloquently.
As they travel west, the couple meets others that have taken the same chance. They form new communities, deal with the disdain of those whose country the enter, and deal with their ever changing relationship. I don't want to tell you any specifics of what they go through, because it is in those events that the book holds its power. However, Hamid has an eye for detail that brings to life the trials and tribulations that people who have left their home must face each and every day.
For me the biggest success of this book comes from the style and choices made in how it is written. At the start, there is almost this layer between the reader and the characters. I compare it to the idea that for many the refugee crisis is something that we only see on television. We see it through a screen, so there is always something blocking us from experiencing the true tragedy. This exists in tone for the first part of the novel. However, as Hamid tells the story the screen between the reader and the characters starts to fade. So much so, that you are so fully invested with the choices that each characters makes and at the end really feel like you have spent real time with both of them.
This book is not driven by plot. It is moved forward by the idea of home. And the search for a home where one feels safe and loved. Both Said and Nadia have different ideas of what this means for them, and what Hamid does brilliantly is validate both perspectives. I don't think that I have read a stronger book about people and the experience of leaving home in a very long time. For me, this is the novel that should be the front runner for the Booker. The story is powerful, the writing is astounding, and the characters unforgettable.
Book Rating : 5 books