The second book in my Man Booker shortlist challenge (two down and four to go, and only 2 weeks before the winner is announced!), Exit West has been on my list of books to read for some time. It is the story of Saeed and Nadia, two young people enduring the horror of civil war in their home city as Islamic extremists take hold of the reins of power. The city is not named – it is not a ‘Raqqa’ or a ‘Mosul’, just two of the cities which have been torn apart by religious fundamentalists and opposing forces seeking to eject them – nor is it clear when in time the novel is set. These are left deliberately vague because this is a novel that wants to focus on the issue of migration rather than historical facts; the movement of people from parts of the world so riven by violence that many able-bodied citizens find they have little choice but to flee. And it is about the impact of this mass movement on those parts of the world mostly unwilling to receive them.
At first, the novel seems quite rooted in a real time and place, as we get to know the two central characters, Saeed and Nadia, learn the details of their lives, their families, how they were brought up and what motivates them. Though they are quite different personalities they fall in love, and when tragedy strikes Saeed’s family, they make the decision to leave their homeland for what they expect to be a safer and more peaceful life in the West. They escape the city through the first of the novel’s doors (inside a dentist’s surgery) and they emerge in Mykonos. At this point I saw the door as a narrative device enabling the author to focus on their experience of leaving and of arriving, rather than the journey (one can only imagine the horrors of that, see my review of The Optician of Lampedusa). It gradually becomes clear, however, that the door is more of a metaphor for transition from one place, one state, to another. Saeed and Nadia will go through many more doors in this novel.
In Mykonos they feel a mixture of hope (they have escaped and they are beginning a new life together) and fear, as we see the first hints that the receiving population may be less than welcoming to the escapees. There is also the contrast between the tourists, choosing to visit the Greek island on their holidays, and the refugees seeking a new home. Mykonos is where Saeed and Nadia also begin to learn that the way you look, the way you dress and your skin colour can have a dramatic impact on your fortunes in the West.
From Mykonos, the couple move on again to London, where they stay in a disused apartment in an area that gradually becomes a ghetto of the dispossessed. From here the novel becomes gradually darker; darker even than the terror that Saeed and Nadia escaped in their home country. I also began to feel here that the novel was less about the experience of escape and more about envisioning some future scenario where simmering tensions, brought about by the failure adequately to address mass migration, explode onto the surface. Hamid foretells the possible reactions of the indigenous population and the domestic authorities; this was not comfortable reading.
This novel deals with one of the greatest challenges of our age and is bleak reading in parts. But the author also attempts to root it very firmly at the human level by telling the story through this young couple, who could be anyone. The issues and difficulties that they encounter in their relationship as a result of their migration experience provide a moving and accessible dimension to the book. The doors are not only metaphors for the physical movement from one location to another, but they also signify changes in the nature of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship.
This is a tough read at times, but also an important one. Recommended.
How are you getting on with the ManBooker shortlist?
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