Like the two world wars and the effect they had on everyday people trying to live everyday lives in the 20th century, one of the greater crises happening in the 21st is the ongoing wars in the Middle East and the effect there on normal people trying to live normal lives. Western media often focusing only on the drama, violence, and terrorism, the lives of ordinary people who want no part of the conflict get overlooked. That is, until they start appearing on Western shores in search of help. Nailing this quotidian view in a fully human story is Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Exit West.
The cultural climate being what is in the West today, it’s important to step in now and forestall any potential eye-rolling: ‘Here we go, another victim narrative…’ In the strictest sense of the expression, yes, Exit West is a victim narrative, but it’s a victim narrative in the same vein as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—the American classic. Prose and setting differ, but both Steinbeck and Hamid attempt to portray ordinary humans caught up in circumstances beyond their control who then try to retain a sense of normalcy and survive. In Grapes, drought pushes the Joad family to leave Oklahoma for California, and in Exit West it’s war that pushes Saeed and Nadia to leave the Middle East for Europe. But neither group of characters is utterly imprisoned by their circumstances. Each uses what instinct and knowledge they have to attempt to carry on—to extend the normalcy as best they can in a new setting. Thus Exit West, like Grapes of Wrath, is not a bleeding heart liberal narrative akin to a Fox News human interest story. Hamid restraining himself, it is a story about real people (in the illustrative sense), nothing exaggerated or overstated.
Nadia and Saeed are two 20-somethings living in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Nadia working at an insurance company’s service desk and Saeed developing projects at an ad agency, the two spend their time as other young people around the world do—going out with friends, using social media, and spending time with their families. Neither religious in any strict sense of the word, they follow local custom in public but otherwise pursue personal interests in private—Nadia even going so far as to live on her own. The two meet at a function for work, but the relationship is slow to evolve given Nadia’s perceived misgivings about Saeed’s traditionalism. Eventually, the two start forming a bond. But war breaks out, and when an opportunity comes available, the couple make the decision to trade bullets and bombs for the uncertainty of the West.
If anything, Exit West is an abstract novel. From the unnamed Middle Eastern country where Nadia and Saeed live to the mysterious doors that open onto other countries and locations, Hamid rarely gives the reader specifics to be able to identify which country, or which war, or which refugee boat is the subject. This means there is limited foothold to take discussion on the novel beyond the bounds of the characters—which is the intent. Moreover, Saeed avoids any maudlin romance, particularly in the latter part of the novel where cheapening/familiarizing the plot could have distracted from the real issues; evolving as ours do, Nadia and Saeed’s trajectories are both relatable and understandable. And the mysterious doors, well, some in the “literary review scene” are buzzing about genre-this and genre-that. In reality, the doors are a simple literary device that perform three basic functions: emphasizing the contrast between locations, being delimiters of phases in Nadia and Saeed’s flight, and lastly, a means of getting characters quickly between points. After all, passage from Boston to London, for example, would be a far blunter affair reduced to a singular door.
And the abstract strategy is highly successful. Nadia and Saeed become the complete focus of Exit West. Struck with only the spotlight of their emotions and concerns, the reader is placed in their shoes, and by default comes to understand their situation, and by further abstraction, the situation of those in similar situations. Comparing to another recent novel which some purport addresses contemporary social and political issues, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and its portrayal of the historical injustices of slavery, the reader does not have the same sense of understanding given Whitehead’s inability to bridge the gap between then and now in relevant fashion. Rather than being analogous to current affairs, its lens is focused on the past. Exit West examines the now. Hamid creates a palpable sense of the real—of documentary footage coming to life in human form on the page. People like Nadia and Saeed can be found walking in contemporary Western society, giving their story a true sense of relevancy that could overlay any number of real world scenarios involving war in the Middle East and the resulting refugees and immigration issues in Europe and America.
In the end, Exit West is likely the best novel written on the topic of refugees and illegal immigration as it relates to the current situation in the Middle East. Hamid wholly avoiding the causes of the conflict and the minority to blame, and instead focusing on the ordinary people caught in the crossfire, the novel tells of human realities and the role the West plays in their personal situations. Humanizing what many in the West often perceive as a faceless mob (or at worst a horde of terrorists just waiting to sneak into the West to kill), the novel also provides an excellent counter-point to a lot of media frenzy and twitter opinions indirectly expressing fear. To be fair, Hamid does avoid topics like what obligations the West has or doesn’t have to help people fleeing Middle Eastern conflicts or the problems inherent to conservative Muslim belief. But in the very least the novel gives Middle Eastern refugees faces, faces just like people in the West grew up with despite that the religion or culture are different, not to mention forces the reader to ask the question: what would you do if you were Saeed or Nadia?. One of the best novels of 2017…