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A powerful statement on the immigrant experience!

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid, author; read by Mohsin Hamid

This brief novel is read in a clinical, almost dead-pan voice, that merely states the facts while offering precise descriptions with simple, incredibly descriptive and detailed prose. In spare words, the author paints a picture of a love story, an immigrant story, a survival story, a story about racial issues, a story of hope, as he exposes the raw version of life for the people of varied cultures, backgrounds, religions, and ethnic groups as they try to find peace, freedom and happiness in a place without revolution, repression and violence.

One of the things that makes the novel stand out is its use of a narrative that employs no wasted words. Yet, the story is eloquent, interesting and informative. It takes place in a world, undefined exactly, that is going through the throes of revolution and is coming slowly under the rule of extremists. There are beheadings and bombings that are graphically described, although the detached voice of the author makes them largely lack the ugliness, and simply become a part of the recitation of an event, from which we are distanced.

This book is the love story of Saeed and Nadia. At first, when we meet them, Nadia wears a long flowing robe as a protective garment (burka), to prevent the advances of men, but she does not pray. Saeed prays only about once a day. He is attached to his family. She is estranged from hers after leaving home against their wishes. They share their dreams of travel and their love blossoms in a time and place that is unknown, but it is a place that is becoming more and more radicalized with resultant beheadings and bombings. Although the term Muslim is not used, it appears to hint that they are of that faith. The violent behavior of the radicalized is spreading, causing fear and desperation for many. As the obstacles they face increase, they search for an escape, and as the times become more dangerous, they flee together through a magical doorway that leads them to freedom. Their religious beliefs seem almost happenstance, but these beliefs adjust as time passes, to the changing attitudes and rules of the times and varied places in which they arrive through the many doors they enter.

The author employs a bit of magical realism into the main body of the story, when at unexpected places in the narrative, he inserts the random experiences of previously unknown characters, as they escape through random doors and arrive in random places around the globe, each with a different migrant experience. These characters appear almost suddenly when they, and the main characters, are offered exit routes through doors that originate in one geographic locale, and inexplicably end in another. Upon crossing the threshold, they hope to find themselves in another place, one that is hopefully safer, welcoming, and offers greater opportunity.

The doors seem to be a symbol of the migrant experience, regardless of where his/her journey leads. Wherever he/she winds up, they struggle and the adjustment is difficult. The doors open and close, into different regions of the globe; they found themselves on a Greek Island, in England, Austria, Australia, Japan, Brazil Amsterdam, and the United States where they encountered other refugees who were not unlike themselves and refugees who were far different, in all ways. In some places, they were more readily accepted, in some more readily rejected. Each place seemed to have a different attitude toward them. In some, they were allowed to assimilate and participate in society, with some restrictions. In others they were ostracized. Still, even though many doors that were once open were soon barred to them, others always became available; they could not be stopped because new doors continued to appear.

As the story progresses, the plight of those escaping and the plight of those forced to receive them was graphically depicted as the results of these massive movements of people caused disruption, resentment and, even, once again, violence. As the fear, each had of the other, bubbled to the surface and as the rotten apples of the bunch gained notoriety, conflicts often occurred. The effects of the stress, on all involved, was grievous. Some relationships could not withstand the pressure, although some did thrive. To prevent the influx of the feared refugees, many methods were tried. The refugees were attacked, starved, cut off from power and water, and were largely unprotected. Still, those who were stalwart and law-abiding formed their own communities, began to share what they had with each other regardless of their different backgrounds, and soon, by example, were accepted, or at least, they were not defeated. Eventually, a sort of relationship evolved between the communities of the migrants and the residents, and they learned to live with each other and the migrants became productive members of the society. Water and power returned to their districts, and life became tolerable again.

Carefully, with subtlety and innuendo, he painted a clear picture of the immigrant experience and analyzed the reasons for its success and/or failure. Some immigrants were desperate, some were rough; some were simply exhausted from their constant effort to escape from their poverty, hopelessness and the heavy hand of their government. The reception they received from strangers who were forced to integrate them into their society was often unwelcoming. They had to be strong, or they would be beaten by those who were stronger, in all avenues of life. Often, they even preyed upon each other.

The characters were caught between the past and the future, and their present was very difficult. Still they managed to create little democratic neighborhoods so they could survive, if not thrive. As the book moved on, the reader is placed a half a century later. The world had changed and the two characters, who had separated years before, reunited and once again, spoke of their former dreams and future possibilities, rekindling their affection for each other, if not their passion.

The author seemed to be making a political statement of sorts about how immigrants are received and how their treatment affects relationships and communities. I did not feel that he presented both sides of the issue equally, because he did not highlight the dangers they brought with them, to innocent victims, from their frustration, different cultural attitudes and their ideas about what constituted acceptable behavior, as well as their assumption of the civil rights they expected to be granted to them. He seemed to favor the immigrant point of view and to believe and only truly present, the idea that If they were welcomed, they would often become productive members of the community, contributing in all sorts of positive ways as they worked hard and prospered. If rejected, and forced to live in substandard conditions, they were then forced to do what was necessary to survive and sometimes, that was not always lawful or positive behavior. I was not sure if he accepted these transgressions. In the future, he seemed to present the view that disparate groups, disparate cultures, disparate languages, disparate heritages, ethnicities and sexual proclivities would all be accepted more kindly. As they learned to understand each other, immigrant neighborhoods would grow up and became part of society.

I believe that the book would be better in print, as I had to listen to various parts over and over because of the monotony of the presentation, which seemed necessary for the way the story was told, but it was difficult to remain constantly engaged. This novel will lead to the reader’s thoughtful examination of the immigrant issue, a current problem in today’s society.