Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
My Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Wounds must not be pitted against each other since it is not their severity but the victim’s reception of them that defines their impact on the body (and soul). So, I must not put together displacement and immigration next to each other for I haven’t experienced either (or so I think). But there is a little elephant in the room of ‘displacement’ that makes its abode more gruesome than ‘immigration’– that it is, without exception, enforced.
The young Saeed and Nadia hail from an unnamed country where the former is a praying liberal and the latter, an atheistic rebel. Their paths, however, meet and after all the dust of doubts and apprehension settle down, they find love. But guns find their town too, and soon, go berserk. Saeed’s and Nadia’s love story might have suffocated and withered under raining bullets and choking curfews and turned into an ordinary one had there not been the ‘door’. A door to exit. Exit West.
Hamid’s tale moves from the unnamed land to Mykonos, from Mykonos to London, and then, stops finally at Marin, San Francisco. And moving along with Saeed and Nadia, we witness their shedding of their houses, their families, their professions and most importantly, their identities. The myriad people who chart their little lines on the map of the couple’s destiny (like Saeed’s friends, Nadia’s landlady and even the agent who arranges their exit from the ‘door’) are lyrically etched and leave a vivid image despite their guest appearances.
He was stocky, but, when he got to his feet, elegant in his movements. His eyes were sober, flat, despite the drink, and not eyes that attracted the eyes of others. Gazes leapt away from his gaze, as they might among packs of dogs in the wild, in which a hierarchy is set by some sensed quality of violent potential.
Each new place that the couple is forced to inhabit runs its own rules and plying oneself to its ruling hammer throws the duo into a bittersweet stream. I found it heartening that the places migrated to were not all black holes and that pushing against them brought occasional echoes of smiles and contentment to the refugees. Work was divided, friends were made, food was shared, meetings were held – the sense of fraternity established among refugees of varied origins was also achieved on a slow-burner, showcasing some ripe and some raw aspects of such forced communities.
The narrative was well-paced and compelling, hinging on the dreamy nails that hold a heart from completely disintegrating but teetering on the consistent brutalities that drill cavities in its very periphery.
Saeed wanted to feel for Nadia what he had always felt for Nadia, and the potential loss of this feeling left him unmoored, adrift in a world where one could go anywhere but still find nothing.
But it is the symbolic usage of the ‘door’ that was most striking – its unnerving appeal lied in its commonplace character. What can a door do, for instance? Let you free? Or lock you good? Or leave you in a limbo where you don’t know if you have arrived or about to depart? This subtle touch of magical realism works its eerie magic as one digs deep into the protagonists’ journey and imparts a universal disposition to their struggles.
We are all migrants through time.
And perhaps, we are all moving between indiscernible doors.
[Image courtesy http://www.cnn.com]