Exit West by Mohsin Hamid #ManBookerPrize

Exit West is Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel and the first one I’ve read. It is on the Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist. When I read about it earlier in the year, I decided this would the one where I would get on board, and with its themes of refugees fleeing war and the challenges of emigration, it seemed pertinent.

It is a story of a young couple Nadia and Saeed who meet in their unnamed home country, which felt to me while reading as if I were reading about Syria, just before the conflict in their country escalates. They meet in the classroom, he with his “studiously maintained stubble”, she in”flowing black robe”. She brushes off his invitation to have coffee initially, eventually agreeing and slowly they develop a friendship, a relationship.

Interspersed with their narrative are brief snapshots of lives being lived at that moment elsewhere – an incident between and man and a woman happening in Australia, a man nursing his Irish whiskey drink in Tokyo. To be honest, I didn’t get what these intrusions into the story were about – perhaps just that life continues elsewhere, oblivious to the dramas of others?

Saeed lives at home with his parents, Nadia lives alone, her robe is her protection, allowing her to live more freely than the alternatives. However as war approached the city, their lives must change and after hearing about an escape route, the couple decide to flee and to create a life elsewhere.

While they are in their hometown it is a story of a young couple attempting to overcome the lack of trust that exists in a culture where independent women live in fear, once they leave it becomes something else, they lack family, friends and community, they try to recreate those things in an environment that is antagonistic towards them. Their memories of what they have left change shape as the are afflicted by nostalgia, regret, loss. They struggle to find their place and even their relationship morphs into something unrecognisable in foreign lands.

There is no voyage, the journey takes place through a door, a portal to another world, to an island in Greece, to London, San Francisco, but the places they travel to bear little resemblance to those places as you and I might know them. They are inaccessible, frightening, there is a sense of them being hunted, of needing to be ready to run, always, it is a fearful dystopian view of supposed freedom from terror; death may have been a more desired alternative after all. And the slow unwinding of their relationship.

The combination of the real and surreal was a bit much for me, somehow it’s easier to go with at the hand of Haruki Murakami, which in a way this reminds me a little of, but while Murakami feels more like pure fantasy, Moshin Hamid invites us to consider a subject that is very real in the modern world today and succeeds in making it disorienting to the reader. Perhaps that is the point.

I read Hala Alyan’s novel Salt Houses (click title to read review) this year, which was also a novel of displacement, centred around multiple generations of Palestinian refugees, who attempt to make new lives in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and America and the challenges they face, even when they are able to retain certain family connections. It’s a cultural loss that is not apparent on the surface, that Alyan digs deep into to reveal the subtle layers.

It makes an interesting complement to Mohsin Hamid’s perspective of loss and dislocation.

For a more enlightened view of what this novel portends to show the reader, check out the following reviews:

Further Reading:

The AtlanticExit West and the Edge of Dystopia, by Sophia Gilbert

The GuardianMagic and violence in migrants’ tale by Andrew Motion

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Man Booker Prize Long List 2017

 

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Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses is a novel that eventually comes full circle, as it follows the female members of a Palestinian family as they flee, move, marry and cope with constantly being and feeling outside where they belong, including between generations and even between siblings.

Each chapter is titled with the name of one of the family, beginning with Salma, the mother of Alia, in Nablus, Palestine, the town she and her husband Hussam and their children fled to in 1948, following the Nakba (catastrophe). Alia is a child of war, barely three years old when they had to flee.

The opening lines are an indication of what is to come and intrigue us to want to know more, they remind me of a visit to Palestine where I first heard about this cultural divination practice, Tasseography, the art of reading coffee grinds, a ritual that dates back thousands of years.

“When Salma peers into her daughter’s coffee cup, she knows instantly she must lie.”

Alia’s older sister is married and lives in Kuwait, a land Alia is reluctant to visit, but when she does in 1967, finds she is unable to return to Palestine due to “the Setback” (the Six-Day-War), thus her children will know a home and culture, even though connected to her heritage, very different from her own.

As each generation makes a move, Hala Alyan takes the reader on an emotional journey of perseverance and loss, against a background of political manoeuvring. While the narrative avoids the conflict and brutality of war and deplacement, we become witness to the separation of a family from its roots, its culture, its land, and in particular the effect on a Palestinian family of the founding of Israel and the conflicts that followed that caused them to become refugees, firstly in their own country and latterly in neighbouring countries.

The separation is not just from their land and traditions, but between perceptions, as family members find it difficult to understand the yearnings of their elders and parents find it difficult to understand the foreigners their have become to them. Fortunately, like with many families, solace can sometimes be found for a child with their grandparent, those who have seen too much to be surprised by anything anymore, who have arrived at acceptance without judgement.

Salt is referred to throughout, invoking memories of family living near the sea displaced inland; fathers who “salted everything after that, even his water,” houses lost, eroded like salt; lives soothed by and almost taken by immersion in salt water. It is everpresent.

“The porcelain surface of the teacup is white as salt; the landscape of dregs, violent.”

Through it all Alia’s husband harbours a secret that torments him, one that he lives with by regularly writing letters that are never sent, seeking atonement.

The novel traverses with diligence a difficult period in the history of Palestine and the Middle East, demonstrating the resilience of humanity to survive, the sacrifices that are made and the cultural poverty that is experienced giving rise to the insatiable desire for families to remain connected, not just to each other but to the small yet important things, the traditional rice dishes, the olive, the orange tree, the desire to keep flowers blooming, no matter where they find themselves.

Their homes may crumble, but their spirits continue to reignite and flourish, wherever their heads may lie.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian-American author, poet and practicing clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn, who spent her childhood moving between the Middle East and the US.  Salt Houses is her debut novel and is inspired by some of her own extended family experiences.

“I definitely think there was an intergenerational trauma that went along with losing a homeland that you see trickle down through the different generations”  Hala Alyan, NPR interview.

Further Reading:

Dreams, Displacement & DNA: Talking With Hala Alyan About ‘Salt Houses’ What happens when displacement enters your DNA? by Kristin Iversen · May 9, 2017

Note: This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley. I originally reviewed this book for Bookbrowse.