From start to finish, the book reads like the rehearsed voice of a news reporter. It’s as if the author is telling you the story in real-time with little backstory or context.
You do your best to weave the story together with the pieces you have, with what’s happening right now, but without details of the past, the whys, and the hows. As a result, there are holes in the story! But that’s okay because you quickly realize that what’s missing isn’t essential to the story. This could be anybody’s story—not just that of Nadia and Saeed.
This is a universal story is about people surviving whatever life throws at them. Who the people are, where the story happens, and even why the events occur are immaterial. The story is about life requiring—no, demanding—that at every turn we make a choice and then face the consequences of those choices. Hence the need for a detached reporter-like voice at every scene merely telling the reader what the choices are, which one the character chooses, and what happens as a result of the choice.
But every now and then, the matter-of-fact voice is broken by profound and painful truths. Here’s an example:
“That is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
As the story progresses, I found the authors’s voice grow tired and cold, like someone who has given up on possibilities. The change is so gradual that you almost forget that this is fiction, that Mohsin Hamid has complete control over the characters, the story, and even the ending. Instead you feel like the author has no choice in the storytelling because it is truth.
The storytelling is simply masterful.
Besides his superb storytelling, Hamid’s treatment of themes in the book—such as the plight of refugees—is raw with universal relevance. The story begins with Nadia losing her family for her independence, and that pattern of losing something to gain something else continues to the end.
“There was no good option for either of them. There was risk to each.”
Hamid’s treatment of life and death is clinical and also matter-of-fact. In the world of Nadia and Saeed, the possibility of death coming through a window is just as likely as death by cancer. Life is really the cancer, the death
Most all reviews of the book include the symbolism of doors. So I’m obliged to include it as well. Everything about the doors represents the uncertainty of life—from the blackness of the door to the fact that there’s nothing on the outside of the door to clue you into to what’s on the other side. There are no guarantees. Not knowing tomorrow from today makes life simultaneously feel like the beginning and the end. To pass from one moment to another is like both like dying and being born.
The book’s philosophical solution to the inevitability of uncertainty is this: With every new beginning, there is loss—and with that loss, you often lose a part of yourself. And if you’re not willing to fill that void with something else, discontentment brews.
Feature image by Debra Trejo on Unsplash
1 thought on “Review: Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid (Penguin Books)”
This is a complex issue. While the refugee crisis around the world is something that raises hackles on two sides of a vast divide and each side has its rationale the common factor with both is fear. However, removing the divisive refugee issue from this study there are elements of similarity with a legitimate legal transfer from one country to another. The culture you leave behind looks on that jump of faith as a betrayal (though I agree in some cases it’s the green goddess of envy at work), and in the culture shock of arrival to find you are the odd man out in your new society with all the issues that brings with it adding to the feeling of non inclusion in the host culture you don’t understand.