Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

I’m afraid, all the time, of things I cannot see and of events that may never take place. When I can, I sift through my fears, trying to separate legitimate concerns from useless imaginations. Usually though, I don’t dwell. So, I was quite unprepared when I picked up Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel.

“Exit West” is a book about fear and how we respond to it. It is a horror story that doesn’t rely on gore or the supernatural – though these elements certainly exist. Instead, it focuses on our reality, on the shades of evil we ignore and, through our willful ignorance, accept.

Like us, Nadia and Saeed inhabit a society in the midst of transition. The whole world is changing, as it always has and always will. Some people perceive change as negative, as a threat to be avoided at all costs. These people would rather burn their city to the ground than to see it -or anybody in it – change too.

Also like us, Nadia and Saeed want life to be normal. They want to study and date and work without fear. So, they do what we would all do, what most of us already do, when we see that our way of life isn’t sustainable: they ignore the signs and keep on living.

They cling to the veil of normalcy until gunfire rips it apart. Neighborhood after neighborhood falls to domestic terrorists who use serrated knives to decapitate citizens.

When the opportunity arises, Nadia and Saeed flee.                                       

But the rest of the world is just like their own city. Everyone is afraid of change, of each other, of losing what they have. Overnight, Nadia and Saeed become pests. The pests must be pushed out, not because they present real threats, but because they are uncomfortable reminders. Nadia and Saeed remind the world that all is not well; they are tangible proof that in this increasingly connected and mobile world what happens in one country will eventually take a toll on all the others.

All of this sounds pretty dark, and it is, but Hamid handles fear beautifully. He doesn’t diminish the presence or the power of fear, he does highlight its transience. The book, slim though it is, spans decades and continents, providing the much-needed perspective of time.

The thing about fear is that it feels so urgent. But if we step back and slow down, as Hamid’s long, meandering sentences nudge us to do, we can see that the struggles we face now are the struggles humanity has always faced. Every generation has the option to grow, to adapt, to become stronger. It also has the option to idle, to dig in its heels and pretend a problem will go away if only the symptoms are ignored.

There is so much I am not sharing about this book, because I really enjoyed discovering it on my own. Let me just tell you there is love, and death, and struggle, and beauty. Let me assure you that despite the weight of the subject, the book is refreshingly optimistic.

I don’t mean the naive optimism that is just as damaging as resolute ignorance. I mean the optimism that reminds us that a choice based on fear is often regressive, not progressive, and that if enough people realize this, the world really could be a better place.

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