REVIEW: Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing - to fall in love - in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it. Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind - when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world... An extraordinary story of desire and hope, travelling from the Middle East to London and beyond, this is a love story that considers what makes ordinary people flee their homes and how the world might change if borders were broken down.

Whilst the focus of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is so relevant and timely to the fractured planet of our current times, the writing style left the so-needed critical argument of the novel just outside of the reader’s grasping hands. Imagine a world just like ours, but with the occurrence of magical doors that allow people to flee from their own country to some unknown, distant land - Greece to England, the Himalayas to Mexico.
They don’t know where they’ll end up, just that it won’t be where they once were.
It should have been amazing, the critical piece of literature that would bring nuanced discussion, and a hint of magical realism, to the international debate about immigration and the refugee crisis. But instead, the maddening, simplistic, bloody awful writing left the story, which had every possibility of being a heart-wrenching, honest peek (something that is hard to do with the inclusion of the magical elements) into so many people’s realities, nothing more than a flat and hollow fossil of something that was once wondrous.
Which is odd. Because, after having been completely bowled away by the National Youth Theatre’s adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an earlier novel of Mohsin Hamid’s that examines islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11, about six months ago, I immediately went out and bought a copy of the book.
I devoured it over the course of a single afternoon. That book was wondrous, there’s no doubt about it. And, sitting here, looking at two, I can not even wrap my head around the fact that they were written by the same author. A decade difference should have meant ten years worth of improvement, not a sharp, steep decline backwards.
Of course, the main difference between the two are their narrative-voices; the protagonist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist talks directly to its reader, trying to explain his choices and the steps that led him eventually to terrorism; whereas Exit West switches between Nadia and Saeed (as well as, for no reason whatsoever, through fragments of about a dozen unnamed others), telling their story in a very abstract, introspective and vague way.
You don’t know what country they come from, the names of some of the people that mean so much to them, or even some of the words in the conversations that they have. Everything is told at a distance, but not like in The Reluctant Fundamentalist where it feels like you’re taken along on the ride. It is instead as though you are watching from a distance, popping in every so often to get a vague summary of the events that you have missed whilst you are away.
This caused a majority of the emotional impact of the novel to simply dissipate. And, honestly, that’s the main thing that a book like this relies on.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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