Booker longlist reading: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

by Sunita

Hamid’s novel marks his second recognition by the Man Booker committee; The Reluctant Fundamentalist made it to the shortlist and while it didn’t win, it won a slew of other prizes. I had very conflicted feelings about that book. Stylistically it was impressive, but substantively it fell short in a number of ways for me. I hadn’t planned to read this one (I skipped the book he wrote in between, which was also well-reviewed), but as I said before, it kept staring at me from the New Fiction shelf and I read a couple of interesting exchanges about it on blogs and at Goodreads.

I started out thinking I’d read 40 or 50 pages and see how I felt about it, and I finished it within the day. Teresa’s review does an excellent job of capturing many of the novel’s strengths, so I’ll direct you to her Shelf Love blog for an overview. If you want a formal review, this one in the Sunday NYT Book Review by Viet Thanh Nguyen is absolutely brilliant.

I loved the way Hamid made the settings both specific and general. Knowing he was from Lahore, I assumed from the opening chapters that the novel was set in Pakistan, but then when the civil war intensifies the setting feels more like what we’ve seen happening in Syria over the last few years. The gradual breakdown of civilian life and the need to get out is captured vividly, even though his style in rendering scenes of loss and horror is often matter-of-fact:

People vanished in those days, and for the most part one never knew, at least not for a while, if they were alive or dead. Nadia passed her family’s home once on purpose, not to speak with them, just to see from the outside if they were there and well, but the home she had forsaken looked deserted, with no sign of inhabitants or life. When she visited again it was gone, unrecognizable, the building crushed by the force of a bomb that weighed as much as a compact automobile. Nadia would never be able to determine what had become of them, but she always hoped they had found a way to depart unharmed, abandoning the city to the predations of warriors on both sides who seemed content to flatten it in order to possess it.

Nadia and Saeed had just started to date when the civil war erupted, and the struggle to stay alive and to maintain human connections bring them close more quickly than probably would have occurred in peaceful times. They’re quite different in their personalities, but survival strategies mute their incompatibilities. Only after they have escaped and found temporary reprieves, first in Mykonos and then in London, do their conflicts begin to dominate, and even then they can’t fully stop loving and admiring (and needing) each other. Does their relationship qualify as a love story? I think it does, because however people fall in love, what matters is that the feelings are real. These felt real to me, even if they weren’t destined to last forever.

Some readers found the portals to be a weakness, either because they introduced a magical element in a relatively realistic plot, or because they diminished the difficulty of the journeys refugees must undertake. I like the portals because they emphasize the extent to which the journey is the beginning, not the end. Finding the portals is difficult, dangerous, and sometimes expensive, but the relief of arrival (until their final destination) is eventually supplanted by the frustration and danger of surviving in the new country. One of Hamid’s themes is that we are all migrants, if only temporally, and the way the book is structured draws attention to how much being a migrant is an ongoing condition, not a transitional phase.

The first half of this novel was a gripping, powerful read for me. The second half wasn’t quite as compelling, especially the last section which takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area. Maybe it was because I couldn’t suspend my disbelief about the way they were able to settle down, maybe the relatively low-key way Saeed and Nadia found new lives contrasted unconvincingly with the believable difficulties they’d experienced before (I can’t imagine refugees colonizing the Marin Headlands without massive pushback, sorry). I’m not sure, but I closed the book feeling a bit let down.

In spite of that criticism, however, I came away with the overall evaluation that this is a very strong novel. It’s stylistically impressive, from the use of language and imagery to the way the story moves between ultra-real and magical, from quotidian concerns to more abstract contexts and mechanisms. But it’s also a deeply human book, much more so than The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The story never lets you forget that migration is a wave that cannot be reversed, but it reminds you of that fact while telling individual human stories. And it’s optimistic. Saeed and Nadia get relatively happy endings, even if it wouldn’t qualify as a genre romance one.