Thursday, January 2, 2020

Book 214: Exit West

"His eyes rolled terribly. Yes: terribly. Or perhaps not so terribly. Perhaps they merely glanced about him, at the woman, at the bed, at the room. Growing up in the not infrequently perilous circumstances in which he had grown up, he was aware of the fragility of his body. He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing."

Dates read: March 9-11, 2018

Rating: 10/10

I don't have to go too far back on either side of my family to find immigrants. On my mom's side, my grandmother left her native Austria as a young woman, and on my dad's side, my great-grandfather came over from Poland as a teenager. Neither were what would be considered particularly desirable immigrants: great-grandpa was illiterate in his native Polish and spoke no English at the time of arrival, and grandma was a Jewish woman without higher education at a time when America was not especially welcoming of Jewish immigrants. But arrive here they both did, and carved out lives for themselves, and started families, and here I am a couple generations later, an American writing this blog.

As long as there are parts of the world that experience war, famine, and oppression, there will be immigrants and refugees. Mohsin Hamid's short, delicate Exit West tells a story about two of them, Saeed and Nadia, with a small magical realism twist: people move between countries through doors that appear, seemingly at random. People go through them, but they don't come back, so you don't know exactly where you're going until you get there. You just know that it's not where you are, and for many people, that's enough. Including our central couple, young people in a never-named, seemingly majority-Muslim city. Nadia covers herself from collarbone to toe in a long robe although such attire is not mandatory...but she's an atheist who smokes pot and is sexually active. Saeed is more traditional, but still far from devout. They meet in a class and sparks start to fly...but then so do bullets as insurgents begin to battle the government in their city, too.

Soon, they're left with little choice but to flee if they want any hope for the future. As they enter first Mykonos, and then London, thousands of others are doing the same. Hamid tosses little side vignettes of other refugees into his story, showing how people react to the new reality: some respond with fear and violence, but others build unexpected connections. As more and more people come streaming across borders, tension between the native populations of the countries experiencing an inflow and the desperate masses who've arrived begin to build. But cracks begin to form between Saeed and Nadia, as they find themselves taking different approaches to life in their new reality.

There's something fairy-tale-esque about this story, and it's not just because of Hamid's absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous writing. Maybe it's in how Saeed and Nadia are given personalities, but still feel symbolic. Maybe it's the way Hamid "zooms out", as it were, every so often to give us a fuller view outside of their story. Maybe it's the familiar beats of love, and loss, and a journey. Maybe it's the undeniable sense of optimism. Maybe it's the elegance of the narrative. It's probably a little bit of all of the above.

I'll admit that I was wary when I heard that this book has a magical realism element, as that doesn't usually appeal to me. But I found myself grabbed by Saeed and Nadia, and their growing bond, and their reluctant flight from home, and their struggles to make new lives for themselves. And the device of the doors makes for a certain efficiency that works with the overall flow of the I said above, there's a real elegance to it, every word and plot detail seems like the product of a deliberate choice to include it. So using doors allows us to skip all the tedium of the mechanical aspects of getting from point A to point B. I was both charmed and deeply moved by this book and now I need to read everything else Hamid's ever written because this was amazing. I'd recommend this book to everyone.

One year ago, I was reading: The Cuckoo's Calling

Two years ago, I was reading: Fourth of July Creek

Three years ago, I was reading: The King Must Die

Four years ago, I was reading: Thirst

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