Mohsin Hamid had an idea: a future where people could travel by walking through a door. And then he tried to write a novel – Exit West – around this idea with varying degrees of success.
Most successful is the grafting to this idea the ideas of home, belonging, citizenship and immigration. Our two protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, open the novel in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. Desperate to escape the country they pay to exit through a ‘door’ (which shouldn’t be in quotes because it is a literal door, but (of course), also a metaphorical door). Along with many of their countrymen they escape and find themselves unwelcome refugees in the lands on the other side of the door(s). Think about it. If you had the idea or prompt – “Doors that open to another place” – you could use that idea in all sorts of fanciful ways. I would most certainly have a door taking me to a pizza factory, for instance. Hamid goes the other way and takes the tired metaphor and scene of border crossing and offers a fresh take. The door allows the exploration of the desirability of destinations (which doors get guarded), of state security (how and whether and when doors are policed by the state) and agency and access (who can make it to a door, who can pay to open one).
Less successful is the romance narrative. Narrated in third person omniscient, the novel has a distinctly fairy tale tone and feel that would/could lend itself to a sweeping romance. Alas in this case I never connected with either Saeed or Naidia. Which isn’t to say I didn’t find their romance believable, or the ultimate conclusion of their relationship relatable. More I didn’t care enough about either of them to be overly concerned by their individual or collective fates. I was much more interested in the doors and the world they opened into. As I suspect Hamid was, too.
I have trouble locating where things don’t quite work – as the writing is top notch, the characters are given all sorts of opportunity to develop, the conflict is real and pressing, the settings unnervingly universal and realistic (and dystopic, I should add). I think it comes down to narrative point of view for me. I wonder if this one might really be the example of where rewriting from a different point of view makes it a much better novel. I can see it narrated from either Saaed or Nadia’s perspective and finding a much stronger sense of connection and empathy. Of course you can argue that this connection isn’t the point. That I’m meant to be focused on the conceit. But, for me, I wanted a stronger connection to character and a more complete sense of the impact of leaving on them as individuals and their relationship.
So this isn’t a settled one for me. More that the idea itself offers a solid exploration of a refugee experience, if not a terribly good romance.
*gentle spoilers* Lawrence Hill probably wants to write a novel with an unhappy ending. He takes his characters through all kinds of challenging and traumatic situations, he sets up plots that beg for dramatic and painful endings, he foreshadows the loss to come. And then… doesn’t deliver. Like The Book of Negroes, Hill’s new novel, The Illegal ends with the triumph of the virtuous over the corrupt, the community over the selfish individual and (you can probably hear it begin swelling around the same time as the last race sequence opens) swelling music as you know the hero is going to save and be saved. It’s a complaint I’d rather not make. I mean who wants to be the reader who asks for more pain for the well-crafted and sympathetic protagonist? It’s just that after experiencing a novel that sets itself up as realistic through the use of careful plot detail and complex character, it feels like an utter novelistic imposition to have such an – unbelievable – resolution. No character, no community – however deserving – achieves such universal satisfaction. [And I’m not a cynic! I’ve been accused of many things in my life, but pessimism isn’t one of them. On the contrary, my optimism is the source of much contention as it’s thought to be unrealistic – and to be fair D. Trump did just win a primary, so maybe it’s time for me to reconsider my position on the relentless upswing of the universe).]
That complaint soundly registered, I’d still recommend the book. With a well-paced and compelling plot, the novel follows runner Keita Ali as he struggles to run – and win – marathons while living as undocumented and ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the (fictional) Freedom State. His needs for winning are as high stakes as they are plentiful: he needs money to save his sister, to pay off his handler, to pay for surgery, to pay to make himself ‘legal’ in the eyes of the state. If these manifold reasons achieve anything (beyond instilling a sort of overwhelmed feeling that Keita will never survive – only to know in the back of your mind that of course he will because Hill can’t let him die [see complaint #1]), it’s the awareness that the insurmountable obstacles facing people in impossible situations are not obstacles of choice. What allows Keita to survive is, in the end, not his exceptional skill (though it helps), but rather the joint efforts of a community. This shift from individual responsibility for circumstance pushes readers to consider a similar shift in assignations of blame when considering those in similarly impossible situations (the timing of the book alongside the global interest in Syrian refugees certainly invites these kinds of parallel questions). Rather than expecting people to fix for themselves through hard work, grit (or incredible skill), we ought to recognize the ways we all need and benefit from shared effort and energy.
Plus the book has some incredible scenes of running that this [super slow] marathon runner enjoyed quite a bit.