When one door closes, another one opens. Well, Mohsin Hamid’s book, “Exit West,” opens a door to a world you hope will close behind you, leaving you enraptured by the many smaller universes he weaves into a blanket – a blanket that smells of home.
Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan, yet he lived in California for a section of his life as a child since his father was studying in Princeton. Eventually, Hamid returned to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School. He currently lives in Lahore where he is based with his wife and children. “Exit West” is a New York Times’ Bestseller succeeding his previous novels, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2007) and “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” (2013).
“Exit West” travels at a rapid, determined clip which grabs you by the hand and traverses narratives of migration, loss and the socially constructed belief of time. Hamid succeeds in encapsulating the grief and strange beauty of uprooting one’s life. How do we define a migrant? What does it mean to travel across lands and across times?
In an unnamed fictional country – but it is to be assumed in Pakistan or a Persian Gulf state – Nadia and Saeed start their journey as budding lovers eager to do life together. Like many young lovers, they live and love voraciously; however, despite this, one obstacle defines how they interact with each other. A war looms between the government and the militants. With this uncertainty leaving a cloying aroma around how Nadia and Saeed view each other, Hamid speaks to the dangerous thrill of young love in a city that is drowning in violence.
Like many other migrants, they decide to flee westward to the “developed” countries of Greece, Great Britain and eventually settle in the United States.
Memory acts as one of the lasting gifts that the brevity of human life gives us. Hamid extracts an addicting bittersweet elixir from how migrants remember their past lives, their homeland and the nostalgic memories they fabricate to cushion the impact of isolation in a foreign land. How Nadia perceives their motherland is drastically different from Saeed. Nadia relishes in the new lands they must adapt to. Meanwhile, Saeed’s thoughts linger around the family he left behind – the family he can no longer touch or speak to.
What parts of ourselves do we lose when we move from place to place? “Exit West” investigates the mutable identity of the migrant. When the names of borders, citizens and people fall away, we only have our memories and our thoughts to identify ourselves with. Knowingly, Hamid withholds the names of the people and locations except that of our two main characters. The reader only knows characters by the simple descriptions Hamid provides such as “the wrinkly man” or “the girl from Mykonos.” These gaps of information can leave the reader suspended in a world where people are perpetual strangers. I believe that Hamid purposefully denies the reader of these details to recreate the feeling of discomfort and foreignness.
“We are all migrants through time,” Hamid says.
Hamid accomplishes a great feat in recording the pilgrimage of Nadia and Saeed who are seeking a semblance of home. Will they find this familiarity within each other? Will they continue to migrate physically and spiritually from the place that was once their home? Can love survive when emotional distance arises? To me, Hamid has proven that love evolves from passionate to strained to almost filial. But can a love weathered by death, trauma and time thrive despite it all?
Read “Exit West,” and maybe you will find the answers there.
Picture courtesy of Penguin Random House