On a spring day earlier this year, I visited a used bookshop in Paris. I did not have a particular book in mind, but instead let fate decide what I needed to add into my reading life. Pastel tulips shades of pink, yellow, and orange bloomed along the cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter, with bright rouge geraniums sprung high above in clay window pots. Tucked behind the main boulevard and away from the commotion of Odeon, I pushed through the red door of San Francisco Book Company. Stacks upon stacks of books lingered against shelves and on top tables, waiting to be sorted and scanned into inventory. If it were not for the bell informing the bookseller customers arrived, I would have missed him behind all the books. At the very front of the shop, I found the new arrivals shelves. There, amongst hundreds of titles, with its neon blue letters sparkling, I spotted Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I recalled a few friends speaking of this novel. Skimming over the back cover, I decided within a few phrases to buy the book.
Hamid’s story begins with conflict developing in a non-descript city. Our two protagonists, Nadia and Saeed meet at a night class. As their romance commences, the political situation around them intensifies, quickly moving from unstable to violent. As the conflict accelerates, shops close and courses end, with city-dwellers stocking up on supplies and curfews strictly enforced. Communication halts, as smart phones lose coverage, silencing the city. Despite obstacles, Saeed manages to find Nadia. Their love intensifies with the instability around them. Although not explicitly indicated, the story reminded me of Syria, a conflict largely reported a few years ago, now faded to the background in most Western press.
Through the grapevine from family and friends, Nadia and Saeed hear about doors located in the city, passageways to new countries in the West. The story follows the couple, as they exit home to the West, each time beginning again. Hamid’s novel demonstrates the raw and emotional journey of being a refugee, escaping one place to find new issues—vulnerability, disapproval, and identity to name a few. Nadia and Saeed shed their belongings, notions of comfort, and tragically lose loved ones over the course of the story. Months after reading the book, I vividly remember a scene where Nadia showers for the first time in months. We take for granted stability and convenience, especially in the digital age.
Hamid’s novel captures the human spirit. He writes a story of survival, loss, love and acceptance. The author’s poetic prose keeps the reader guessing, wondering and questioning the lives of these captivating characters.
If you are in the Paris area, be sure to check out a hidden gem: San Francisco Book Company. You never know where a bookshop door may lead you.