In a generic, nameless city, somewhere in the conflict-ridden middle-east, a young couple fall in love. As their relationship grows, fearing for their lives, they are forced into migration.
This is the story common to a number of human beings, so countless in our age as to threaten to numb us, by helplessness, into inaction. The genius of Moshin Hamid lies not only in his observations of the power of the fundamental urges that drive our lives, but also in his utilisation of a form of narration that intensifies our ability to relate to this all-too-common story.
Narrated much as a storyteller might speak a tale in simplicity to a campfire audience, Exit West is a fable, utilising a minimum of dialogue. It is rendered all the more poignant for the fantasy-like quality so created. This slightly distant, almost detached form of storytelling so understates the gravity of the story that it allows the power of the world-scale events in the narrative to speak directly to the reader. We are thus forced to confront all the more clearly the profound human reality of the almost overwhelming events that confront us in our nightly newscasts.
With a magical-realism element that resonates back to C S Lewis’ Narnia fables, this book employs elements of fantasy that serve the writer’s purpose without ever becoming his master. As a result, the book sharpens its story to pencil-point relevance.
Hamid exposes the 21st Century phenomenon of mass-migration, projecting it through the vehicle of magical realism into something personal, something intrusive, something inescapable. In short, he forces me to confront what it actually means to be a poverty-stricken migrant. Yet at the same time the narrative will not let me escape the implications of these multiple diasporas to the communities at the destination end of this vast displacement of humanity into the places we call home. The homeless and the invaded are forced, through unrequested and unsanctioned coexistence, to confront the extremes of the human response, from open-armed generosity through to grim-faced defence of what is owned and valued.
Hamid successfully conveys the sense that migration is inescapable for those it captures, confronting increasing proportions of recipient countries’ population with the realities of displacement – the rootlessness, the poverty, the appropriation without permission, of the basic necessities for sustenance of life, and the rejection that diminishes us all. This is a world in which it matters nothing what your previous status was, what education you had, what professional skills you possessed that somewhere and somewhen else were once valued. Now all are reduced to the base denomination level of existence that elevates the fundamental necessities of life to an all-consuming priority.
We cannot escape the reality that this is the problem confronting the many not the few, that problem that will eventually confront all of us. Hamid therefore forces us to take ownership of our own reactions and instincts, making us shudder as we confront the limits we draw to our declared morality.
My only disappointment with the book is that the intensity of its engagement with the reader declines towards its end, leaving me with the feeling that this already short novel would have been all the stronger for being about 20% shorter still. For me, therefore, Exit West falls just short of being a great novel. It nevertheless deserves its place on the 2017 Mann-Booker shortlist. Perhaps it deserves to win.
Michael Forester 13.09.17