The Morning News Tournament of Books has brought me a lot great reads so far this year, and I’m officially including Exit West among the

new book friends I made as a result of the tournament.

 

Mohsin Hamid’s book is at once a very realistic story about two refugees living in an unstable country and then fleeing that country in search of safety, but it has a magical fable quality to it as well. It actually reminded me a lot of Colton Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, using magical realism to make me look at the treatment of refugees differently. In this case, the magical twist is that suddenly, doors everywhere become doors that go not from the bedroom to the bathroom but too California, London, Greece, etc. Mostly you follow the two refugees, Saeed and Nadia, as they fall in love, leave their country, deal with life in refugee camps, and try to make a life for themselves in a few other places. But you also get a few glimpses of other people trying to make sense of this somewhat borderless world where people from anywhere can suddenly appear by simply walking through a door.

To be clear, the doors aren’t the Tardis, you don’t get to travel through all of space and time, the door still goes from one place to another, but now it goes to California. So, the doors that go to ‘good’ places are guarded once they’re found and Saeed and Nadia don’t immediately get to Europe or America.

It is a beautifully written, fairly sad, modestly hopeful book — SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILERES !!! SERIOUSLY IF IT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU TO BE SURPRISED ABOUT ALL PLOT EVENTS IN THIS BOOK STOP HEEEEREEEE!

For example, Saeed’s mother is killed, for no reason, she’s just in the wrong place, and Saeed’s father is described:

Saeed’s father wept only when he was alone in his room silently, without tears, his body seized as though by a stutter, or a shiver, that would not let go, for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend.

Here’s another passage that gives a sense of tone and style (and I bookmarked it because I bookmark everything about people reckoning with mortality okay!):

By the time he entered university, Saeed’s parents prayed more often than they had when he was younger, maybe because they had lost a great many loved ones by that age, or maybe because the transient natures of their own lives were gradually becoming less hidden from them, or maybe because they worried for their son in a country that seemed to worship money above all . . . or maybe simply because their personal relationships with prayer had deepened and become more meaningful over the years.

If there’s a prettier way to say, thinking about mortality than the “transient nature of my life is gradually becoming less hidden from me” I haven’t heard it yet.

The book also plays with language by using the term “native” differently throughout, and pointing out that in a world full of recent door traveling refugees, but also before that, “native” is a debatable term:

And yet it was not quite true to say there were almost no natives, nativeness being a relative matter, and many others considered themselves native to this country [USA], by which they meant that they or their parents or their grandparents or the grandparents of their grandparents had been born on the strip of land that stretched from the mid-northern Pacific to the mid-northern Atlantic, that their existence here did not owe anything to a physical migration that had occurred in their lifetimes.

This isn’t a happy book, but it isn’t an entirely unhappy book, and the magical element adds something special. And, clocking in at just 231 pages, it doesn’t even demand too much of your reading time (although I bet you’ll think about it a lot once you’re done).

Currently reading: STILL SPINELESS. Okay, I would probably finish that faster if I weren’t also reading The Ten Year Nap and I just picked up Zadie Smith’s essay collection (which is a monstrous +500 page book).

*Also – I’m going to make an effort to include a link to Powell’s in case you’re moved to buy the book that I’ve been reading. I also encourage visiting your local library and supporting your local indie bookstore. I’m very guilty of buying books from places that are less kind to writers, publishing house, their employees… but I really want to be reading books in 20 years, and I think Indie bookstores are a big part of that. Also, my local indie bookstore is a magical place, I bet yours is too. And if not, there’s always Powell’s 🙂