Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review: "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid

"In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her."

So begins Mohsin Hamid's extraordinary new novel, Exit West. At once both sharply current and dreamily magical, this book is social commentary, fantasy, and an emotion-laded look at how we crave connection even in the most chaotic, the bleakest of times.

While reading this book, all I could think of was:

When Saeed and Nadia first meet in a night class, they both are intrigued with each other, but neither acts on it. In an unnamed country beset by impending civil war, pursuing a romantic relationship isn't high on either one's priority list. Nadia is fiercely independent, living alone, and not afraid of embracing her sensuality, while Saeed is more contemplative, quiet, and less sure of himself.

They first pursue a friendship, and then both begin to realize just how much they come to rely on each other, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. When the warring factions begin exerting their power over the country, enforcing curfews, restricting electricity, cutting phone signals and internet coverage, each worries about the other's safety, and their feelings for each other grow, if not quite into love for both, at least something stronger than friendship.

"Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions, and furthermore the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one's appreciation for food."

As full-on violence and terror ebb and flow, and tragedy strikes, the two become even closer. They despair over their future, whether they will survive the war, and where it will leave them. More and more, they hear rumors of doors, doors which somehow can help people like them escape far away from the violence—although not without risk, and not without great cost. At first, the thought of leaving seems cowardly and wrong, but the more the violence escalates, they realize they have no choice. After much trepidation, they find a door and see where it leads.

At this point, Exit West's plot becomes a little dreamier, but still equally present and powerful, as it not only examines the effects strife, stress, and constant fear and suspicion have on a relationship, but it's also a pointed look at the refugee experience, and how people in the same situation can treat each other.

This book worked for me on so many levels. At a time in our world where some wish to label all immigrants in a negative way, this is a stark reminder of why so many flee their countries, and how their humanity is often lost in the process. But beyond the social and philosophical commentary, this book is, at its heart, a story of relationships, of love, of loss, and the sacrifices we make for those we love.

"...he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you."

Hamid is an extraordinary writer. For as many quotes as I pulled from the book for this review, I found hundreds more. His prose is dazzling, his imagery at once sublime and gritty, and the emotions he generates from this story are genuine, not manipulated. This is a book that has touched me, one which has made me think and feel, one which I will remember and linger over.

For some, the fantastical elements of the plot may not work, but if you allow yourself to become fully immersed in the entire experience, hopefully you will savor it as I have. This is simply fantastic.

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