“The calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be.”
I have never in my life come across an un-romanticized romance. Throughout this deeply beautiful narrative, the reader is given details, rather, facts and is left to draw whatever conclusions they may. The reader is not forced to understand, or even asked to understand; instead, they sit before a portrait which they can choose to see however they wish. The intricacy and mundanity that is put forth in the midst of love and terror are both chilling and comforting simultaneously. For isn’t it true that we are never more human than in the moments in which we are confronted with trauma? So, it seems both fitting and brilliant that Mohsin Hamin opted to flesh out his storyline and his characters in the most human passages I have ever come across.
We’d all like to think that our great love stories would be written in songful, rhythmic poetry, but after reading Exit West I find myself longing for my story to emerge from the realistic, factual, humble tongue of Mohsin Hamin. Though, of course, I was reading his exquisite voice from the pages of this novel, it sounded soft, familiar, and comforting with a little side of eerie.
Exit West does not use the small moments which fall between love and terror to support them, but rather, to drive them. After all, each story of great magnitude is just a serendipitous collection of regular happenings, wouldn’t you say?
The story begins as many others do, with a glance. Saeed’s eyes land on Nadia under the fluorescent lights of a night school classroom. Though we are first introduced to the seemingly ordinary walls between which Saeed leads his seemingly ordinary life, his home where he dwells with his mother and father, his office, his classroom, and the cafeteria where he and Nadia experience their first internal encounter; we are also introduced to the fact that their unnamed country is war-torn and crumbling. Explosions, fatalities, and omnipresent militants are noted by Hamin with an air of distance, not unlike the factual reminiscence of the love story shared between Saeed’s parents or the one unfolding slowly between him and Nadia.
As violence increases rapidly and safety, security, and predictability become foggy memories, Saeed and Nadia begin to hear of dark doorways which are being discovered around their country that act as passages to other parts of the world. One never knows where these doors may lead them until they step through, and one never knows if they will be lead to salvation or demise. Though I found myself surprised to find Exit West dabbling on the side of fantasy with the introduction of these allusive doors, it was not unwelcome nor did it feel unnatural. After much hesitation and a great deal of fear, Saeed and Nadia find themselves stepping through a series of doors, each of which leads them to a foreign land which homes countless other refugees from all sides of the earth. These foreign lands hold both wonder and horror as we are guided through the lives of refugees and lent just a sliver or the stomach-curdling uncertainty that one must feel when their feet land on unknown soil without the slightest clue of whether their life expectancy spans across years or seconds.
This novel is both timely and timeless as it allows its readers to reflect upon just what it means to be human, and ponder the ways with which society awards different degrees of humanness to individuals in different circumstances. Exit West is humbling in the sort of way that makes you want to give yourself a hug and then a kick in the pants. I adored every word of this novel, the 200-some pages flew by far too quickly, and I will, with certainty, be reading it again.
If you haven’t read it yet and you’re wondering what to read next, the search is over! Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is a novel you will not soon forget.
Written by :: Britanny Burr / @britburr