I don’t judge a book by its cover, but I do form a preset opinion on whether I want to read it by reading the back cover. As always, I went into the American Book Centre in Amsterdam just to have a look because I had some time to kill. However, these kinds of ‘looks’ never end with walking out of the store and NOT buying anything. I came across Exit West and thought, hmm, let’s see. I read the back cover of this edition and thought: Ugh, a love story? Thanks, but no thanks! I knew the novel had been nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2017, so I wondered why. I ended up buying some other books and didn’t think about it until much later.
I was working as a volunteer at the Writer’s Unlimited Winternachten festival in The Hague and during dinner, guess who comes over to ask if he can sit at my table: Mohsin Hamid. I knew he did write some wonderful books, I only had never read them (yet). While we are having dinner, and secretly I’m already feeling guilty for putting his book back on the shelves, he starts telling about his ‘new’ book Exit West. The way he described it, I had to tell him how badly I thought his novel was presented on the back cover. Luckily, we had a little laugh about it and the next day, I bought his novel, bothered him with signing it for me and vowed to read it as quickly as possible.
How amazed was I to find out the layers in this novel! I can now see why it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and to be honest, it should have won! There is indeed a love story, but not your average happily-ever-after love story. The characters Saaed and Nadia go through a love which isn’t much unlike any other most of us have experienced. Their circumstances however are! What I loved most about their love story is that it was so real and raw; they fight, alienate each other but cannot let go of each other because of the love they feel but also because of what they have gone through in life together.
Nadia too noticed a friction between them. She was uncertain what to do to disarm the cycles of annoyance they seemed to be entering into with one another, since once begun such cycles are difficult to break, in fact the opposite, as if each makes the threshold for irritation next time a bit lower, as is the case with certain allergies.
It also felt so good to see women represented as having a natural interest in sex without them being portrayed as promiscuous. SPOILER ALERT, Nadia’s bisexuality (if you’re into labels) in the end, which is introduced very slowly and completely naturally, really surprised me. I fell in love even more with this book after this. It wasn’t just Nadia’s sexuality but also Saeed’s mother who is more interested in sex than her husband. Such a breeze of fresh breath to read these kinds of subtleties, just like the gay older men who steal a kiss from each other.
In this group, everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was.
The refugee ‘crisis’ is enhanced in this novel because they are flooding cities all over the world by traveling through magic doors that open randomly. The main plot revolves around the experience of Saeed and Nadia, who both live in an unnamed city in an unnamed Muslim country. That is actually one of the beauties of this book, it could be anyone anywhere who has been through the actual crisis of having to leave their home behind. The way in which the nativists in London are afraid of these people who have had to leave their lives behind sounds so much like the attitude of so many people in Europe who find the refugees a crisis for their own country instead of acknowledging the crisis the refugees have been through themselves. But, Hamid doesn’t miss a beat and also includes those kind people who want to help the refugees in his story, showing the power of humanity. I don’t even want to start on the representation of Muslims in this novel, because it is so beautifully done that it needs to be experienced!
When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world.
The way in which Hamid has managed to portray humanity in its truest sense will surely touch even the coldest of hearts. We can all, regardless of ethnicity, color, religion or sexual preference, across all genders and worlds, understand the feelings that Mohsin Hamid puts on our platter with this novel. And with that, I want to share with you the most exciting, yet simplest, words I’ve read in years:
We are all migrants through time.