Sunday, September 17, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

When Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I knew I finally needed to pick up a copy.  What a wonderful book it is! Simple but thoughtful, post-modern but very approachable.  He makes big ideas, like what it means to travel through time and space, not like Doctor Who but just like humans living, so understandable, and he makes the immigrant experience, particularly the immigrant who escapes horror and harm, as thank god I have not, nevertheless relatable.

Hamid's characters, Nadia and Saeed, are living in a country that suddenly erupts into violence.  They live there as long as they can, but soon discover they need to leave to survive. They immigrate to a refugee camp, where things are in some ways better, some worse; and again, and again. There's a slight magical realism element to the way they travel which reminded me of elements of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez - they approach a door which becomes like a portal.  For a while, they're in a nebulous space, and then they emerge in a new land, sometimes sure of their destination, sometimes not. It's really the only fantastical element of the book and it's beautifully effective and an a spot-on way of capturing not just the immigrant experience but I think most air-travel experiences, honestly.

I came to love both Nadia and Saeed - both of whom continued to defy my expectations - the loving and gentle, religious Saeed who wishes his wife wouldn't wear a full-length black robe. Nadia tells Saeed she wears the gown “so men don’t fuck with me”. She smokes pot and likes living alone.

Hamid also introduces other characters in short vignettes. To me these small asides don't serve much purpose aside from offering hope and showing love in a world that seems overwhelmed with hate.  In one rather remarkable two-page "run-on sentence" a young woman rides a train to stand in a human chain to protect migrants from a militant mob.
... it wasn't until she boarded the train and found herself surrounded by men who looked like her brother and her cousins and her father and her uncles, except that they were angry, they were furious, and they were staring at her and at her badges with undisguised hostility, and the rancor of perceived betrayal, and they started to shout at her, and push her, that she left fear, a basic, animal fear, terror, and thought that anything could happen, and then the next station came and she shoved through and off the train, and she worried they might seize her, and stop her, and hurt her, but they didn't, and she made it off, and she stood there after the train had departed, and she was trembling, and she thought for a while, and then she gathered her courage, and she began to walk...
My god! I mean! Could you just!

"We are all migrants through time." Hamid writes this simple sentence near the end of the book, where by then it lands with a thud in your heart, having come by then to think about travelling in a slightly different way. But, it really sunk in for me, the lucky person who's never had to flee her home, during this time where there word "migrant" is loaded with so much controversy.  And it really made me think about how moving forward through time, as most of us experience it, we emulate the migrant experience, sometimes leaving people behind that we love, changing our own goals and aspirations and sometimes modifying what's most important to us.

It was a lovely, lovely book and I highly recommend it.

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