With a full-time job, a husband, and a five year-old, most of my reading gets done on my breaks at work, or maybe in 20 minutes chunks before I fall asleep. I hardly ever read for more than an hour at one time – either sleep or my short attention span win out. So it’s a BIG DEAL for me to say that I read most of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (231 pages) in one sitting. It was a Friday night, and I just felt like devoting my night (after my son fell asleep) to reading. I did not want to put it down. I was riveted by the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people falling in love in the midst of an unnamed Middle Eastern city crumbling into sectarian violence.
They meet in class when the city had only experienced “some shootings and the odd car bombing.” They have coffee in the cafeteria, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they talk and get to know one another a bit as any young couple might do. And then more and more frightening and violent things begin to happen, and then things start to go all to hell, and they are thrown into a much more intimate relationship at a faster pace than they probably would have experienced otherwise.
But then a way out emerges:
Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe…
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I won’t reveal more about the doors. That said, this not a book for everyone. Lately I’ve read some of those Top Ten Tuesday lists about things that turn people off as readers, and magical realism is a popular turn-off. My tolerance for “weirdness” in books has only increased as I’ve gotten older, so I like magical realism, if it serves the story. For me, the magical doors to more stable European and American cities worked. I went with the device as a way to move the narrative along and as an ironic commentary on how often treacherous and deadly real-life migration is. I ve read that sometimes magical realism makes a reader feel removed from the characters, but I didn’t feel this way at all. I was fully immersed in Nadia and Saeed’s plight as they tried to find a place to be and tried to navigate complicated emotions in such a new and fragile relationship.
And the writing – my goodness! It moved me. There is something essentially human in Mr. Hamid’s writing that touched my heart. This passage about Saeed’s prayers especially spoke to me:
“…he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other was. 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 all carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another…”
Because I was moved, because I was transported, I am confident that Exit West will be on my year-end Top Ten list. I now want to read all of his books with a new sense of urgency.
You can read a great interview with Mr. Hamid (and you should!) from the New York Times here.
Do you have plans to read Exit West? How do you feel about magical realism or weirdness in books? What was the last book you read in one (or two) sitting(s)?