Monday, December 11, 2023

On the Coffee Table: Mohsin Hamid

Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid

via Target

Nadia and Saeed are young professionals in an unnamed, predominantly Muslim country (Hamid is Pakistani though he never identifies the nation as such).  The two meet and fall in love just as civil war breaks out.  Eventually, they are forced to leave through magic doors to lands far distant: first the Greek island of Mykonos, then London, finally northern California.  Through them, we see the broad view of the refugee experience.

There's no shortage of harsh tales about refugee camps.  I highly recommend the work of Joe Sacco, for instance.  Exit West isn't like that.  The story follows the two lovers as they do their best to live a normal life through it all.  There is poverty and plenty of violence.  While the protagonists occasionally walk into difficult situations, the author always pulls the punch before they come to any real harm.  It can feel like a cop out but in a way, it's refreshing.  The refugee life is not painted as disastrous.  It is a difficult path millions tread every day.  But it's not a death sentence.

That said, the instantly teleporting doors themselves - really the only element of magical realism in the book - do feel like a shorthand so Hamid doesn't have to write about the migration experience itself.  The same basic narrative could have been told without them.

Through it all is the story of young love.  The two fall in love and eventually fall out of it.  That story, too, could have been told without the trappings of the refugee experience.  I suppose the reverse is also true - their story could have been told about a family, a pair of friends, a single person, etc.  But in this case, the love story contributes to the sense of normalcy.  While their migration complicates things, they are still also just two people figuring out how/if to fit into one another's lives.  

I've tabbed the post as "children's literature" as our child was assigned to read it their senior year of high school.  Both sex and drugs are part of the couple's experience though nothing is graphic or explicit.  So, it's a good read for an older, thoughtful teenager on up.

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