Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

exit-westExit West is one of those novels that I’m still puzzling over, some time after finishing it. The author makes some interesting choices in terms of technique. So this review is really my reflections up to now rather than a settled opinion.

First, Exit West is narrated by an omniscient narrator with a cool, detached voice. This adds to the sense that the events it describes are normal, unsurprising. It tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, who live in an unnamed city in a country on the brink of civil war.

Saeed has light stubble and Nadia wears a black robe, at a time when people could still choose what to wear, ‘so these choices meant something’. They become involved and in contrast to their appearances, it is Nadia who has broken with expectations by living independently, estranged from her family, while Saeed still lives at home.

At first they do the things new couples do. They text incessantly. They use recreational drugs by moonlight. They listen to music and negotiate their attitudes to sex. But the civil war takes first their freedom and then their safety. It seems like the only option is to escape.

Saeed and Nadia leave through one of the ‘doors’ by which refugees leave war zones, generally after handing over money to traffickers. The ‘doors’ open and close apparently randomly, offering an abrupt dislocation from one place to another. It suggests something magical, without human agency, while the reality is anything but.

While Saeed and Nadia’s home city is unnamed, the events described feel contemporary and real. However the places where they go after they leave, which are named, known locations, are subtly different, as if we’re looking at a possible future or an alternate reality. They are in social upheaval, they are more segregated, even less hopeful than they are now.

Then there are vignettes throughout the book interrupting the main narrative, showing immigrants and refugees in other regions suddenly appearing through doors, as if to remind us that this is happening everywhere, all the time.

Saeed and Nadia are well realised characters, at once unique and recognisable. As they leave their home the narrative fragments and their stories become less absorbing. It is as if in becoming refugees, whose main preoccupation is survival, whose choices are circumscribed, they have less time to be psychologically complex and interesting, not only to a reader but perhaps to themselves.

So while the story didn’t engage me throughout the book, the ideas did, and still do. Exit West challenges you to think in new ways about a familiar issue, to question what you understand when you see generic terms like refugee or migrant applied to millions of individuals, who each has their home, their emotional life, their door, and has to make the decision to take that chance, or not, while they can.

I received a copy of Exit West from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Exit West on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For a different take on the immigrant experience, try Behold the Dreamers


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