Published: March 7, 2017
Format: Audiobook read by the author
“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists. And it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations and cities pulling away from hinterlands. And it seemed that as everyone was coming together, everyone was also moving apart.”
This novel is a riveting, brilliantly written masterpiece that is about the relationship between a young couple that begins just prior to the eruption of a Civil War in their country. I was amazed by how attuned to the nuances of relationships this author is. He describes the falling in, the developing closeness, the emerging separateness and consequent break so eloquently and with such tenderness.
There is a cinematic quality to this novel. As it focus on these two main characters, Saeed and Nadia, and their struggles during these uncertain times, it also flashes to other parts of the world and small moments in the lives of others. The writing is razor sharp, profound, full of insight. There are no wasted words. I listened to this audiobook in my car, and the number of times I skipped backwards to listen to something again or just in case I may have missed something exceeded that of any other book I’ve listened to. If I had been reading an ebook or physical book, I would have easily found something to highlight on every page.
The initial setting is in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where Nadia and Said meet in an evening class studying corporate identity and product branding. Their seemingly normal lives and beginning romance are upturned rapidly as insurgents try to take over the city. There is a sense of impending doom. War is raging, militants are flooding into their city, and people are dying or disappearing. There are extreme rules in place regarding dress and social conduct with the opposite sex. Certain religious sects are being persecuted. People are being hung in the streets. However, there are “doors,” which even the most reputable journalists are acknowledging the existence of.
Without knowing where these doors may lead, Sayeed and Nadia decide to flee through one of these doors and so begins their journey, first to Mikonos, then London, then Marin. In these other lands, they are refugees who are kept separate from the nativists. It’s an uncertain world, but eventually they are working at a camp to building a home for themselves which they accomplish together. However, the chaos and tumult of the times in the early phase of their relationship has taken a toll. They see each other differently as their roles change and their location changes. The excited young lovers from the beginning of the novel have changed as their world has changed. They have been through so much together, have been codependent by necessity. They begin to see each other through different lenses. The chaos of the times and world of being migrants brought their romance along more quickly, but also threatens it.
More broadly, this novel is about people, migrants, immigrants, natives. The message is loud and clear. We are all people and should treat each other as such. There are always people fleeing wars, political unrest, religious persecution, and so on. We need to be more tolerant. In this era of Brexit and Trump’s travel bans, with countries fearing incoming people flooding into their homelands, this book offers a radical, beautiful challenge. Mohsin Hamid has said that he used doors (the only fantastical element in this novel) as the route to other countries, because he wanted to focus on the actual immigrant experience, not the journey between countries. In this novel, Hamid deftly explores the pain of leaving behind a grieving recently widowed father in hopes of a better life, of escaping premature death. A quote from the book regarding this: “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” He also explores the plight of the immigrant in a foreign land, pushed to the outskirts by natives. He describes how these situations affect people in different ways and how migrants change through these experiences. He ends the novel with this final quote: “We are all migrants through time.” I highly recommend this timely book to everyone! It is intelligent, insightful and tender altogether.
- Why do you think the author used “doors” rather than actual travel between countries?
- What do you believe is the author’s message regarding immigration and immigration laws?
- In Mohsin Hamid’s essay in the Guardian, he says that the future cannot be left to politicians. It calls on “radical politically engaged fiction” to muster up wisdom and insight into where we as individuals, families, societies, cultures… must go. What wisdom is the author imparting in this novel? Where is he directing us in the future?
- What role does technology and social media play in this novel?
- Define migrant. Are we all migrants?
- In this book, it says that in this new world, some people felt their lives were better. Why and how so?
- Saeed in this novel is fiercely attached to his family while Nadia is fiercely independent. How do these character traits affect their relationship?
- In the book a passage through a door is equated to dying and being reborn. Explain.
- The old woman in Palo Alto says that when she goes out now, she feels like a migrant, “a migrant through time.” What does she mean by this?
- Some people have compared this book to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad for employing a virtual form of transportation. Do you see these as a similar narrative styles?
- Why did Saeed pray?