Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Exit West tells the story of two people caught in a country in the midst of civil war and follows their journey as they attempt to escape from their homeland through rumoured doors to the West.
This is certainly a book that leaves an impression and leaves you thinking long afterwards. On immediate completion of this book I thought I was going to give this book 3 stars, then I just couldn’t stop thinking about it and recognized the impact it produced and just had to give it a higher rating. This would most certainly be a wonderful book to feature in a bookclub as I think the reading of this would generate some very interesting conversation.
The fist imagery in the book that really struck me was when we first encounter one of these mythical doors to the West. It describes a typical “American Dream” type of household with the occupant asleep and helpless, the doorway then conjures feelings of unease and the boogeyman in the closet or a home invader. This was really powerful to me when you contemplate the mindset of many affluent countries who are dealing with the influx of refugees from many war torn countries. This actually brought to mind a conversation I had with a cab driver while traveling in the USA and how betrayed he felt by myself and my companions (all being Canadian) that we kept letting “these people” into our country and we needed to stop because it just wasn’t safe, much like the boogeyman in the closet. Then conversely in this same scene in the book we get the occupant of the door who seems menacing to begin with, then we come to realize he is attempting to be as silent and unseen as possible. Whew! There is so much to talk about even in just those couple pages! The imagery in this book continued to be very beautiful and also extremely effective at putting you inside the book and feeling the unease, fear, displacement of the situation. This was especially impressive to me since I have never had to experience these types of situations in my life (for which I am extremely grateful). So often in books that deal with this extreme subject matter you feel compassion for the characters, but it is difficult to relate on a personal level. Hamid continuously uses imagery that is very relatable to me and experiences that I have had, it really brings you inside the story, for example “The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds started by a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of a tree”. We have all been afraid of some sort of boogey man in our closet, or been in a forest and wondered what was coming when you see that flock of birds take flight.
A perhaps more controversial topic for some was how the author played with who you consider to be an immigrant. Who do you consider worthy of living in the places that they are? Most of us in North American were migrants at some point, why do we have more of a right to be here than others? He explores the fact that everyone is changed in the process immigration and has you question how far would you go to keep yourself or your family safe. He talks about how you can’t deny others the right to safety and that “the denial to coexist would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process”.
I also found it interesting that Hamid to chose to leave the country of the refugees and the characters quite vague. There is enough that you get to know the characters and they are real people, but they are purposely vague as if we are meant to care for them not because of their individual attributes, but because they are human beings. This story could be applied to any moment in time and to any crisis that has required people to flee their homes and seek safety and shelter in other countries.
I also enjoyed how each characters previous life experiences shaped how they coped with their new life situations. Saeed who had grown up in a loving and supportive home, who felt equality and comfort in his customs and culture felt out of place amid foreign people and sought out like people to again feel comforted. Nadia who did not come from a supportive back ground and felt “stifled” and undervalued by her family and traditions, she often felt unsafe in her surroundings in her home country, she sought out comfort and safety from those different from her and gladly adopted customs and people from other backgrounds.
So my thoughts in respect to the Manbooker 2017 prize. I would be happy to see this on the shortlist, although it seems premature to be making picks for the shortlist having only read 2 so far. If you are looking to just dip you toe into the long-list or only want to try out a couple I think this is a really good place to start. It is quite a short book (my copy being only 231 pages) so it is not a huge time investment, it is very easy to read, and I think everyone could benefit from reading it since it has some very relevant subject matter to our current political climate. Manbooker 2/13
“We are all immigrants through time”