Exit West is a novel by Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which I’m only mentioning because I read it in a college English course and didn’t realize this was the same author, despite it being printed on the cover, because I listened to this book on audio, but more on that later), published by Riverhead Books in March of 2017, with the audio recorded by Penguin Random House Audio. The story follows lovers Saeed and Nadia as they flee from a war-ravaged city to become refugees in Greece, London, and California. This feels like a very timely story with the refugee crisis, and reactions to it among the global community if magical doors with no set destination were opening in places around the world. This reaction seems to be what I’m hearing about this book, and was all that I knew about it coming into the story.
Before I go under the cut and talk about what I thought of the writing, and this book in general I wanted to mention that this was the first book that I listened to on audio using the OverDrive app. I don’t think I could have asked for a more pleasant re-introduction to audiobooks. Often while listening to podcasts on walks I find my mind wandering and when my attention returns to the show I’ve missed something crucial (the real reason I’ve yet to finish Welcome to Nightvale). While listening to this book on my many walks across the city of Minneapolis it held my attention, and I could enjoy the story without any internal intrusion.
As stated above, I listened to this book so any quotes that I use won’t have page numbers attached to them.
The story opens with Saeed and Nadia meeting one another in a college course in an unnamed Middle Eastern city with teetering on the edge of war. As the couple grows closer so does the threat of conflict. The writing in this section is quick, the sentences feel choppy and almost feel repetitive. Almost as if the start of one sentence is in the end of the previous. It connects globalization with the conflicts in the world, and the first time we see a door in action is far off in a gentrified neighborhood in Australia a rectangle of complete darkness opens and “out of this darkness a man was emerging. He too was dark, with dark skin and dark wooly hair. He wriggled with great effort, his hands gripping either side of the doorway as though pulling himself up against gravity, or against the rush of monstrous tide” (8:20). These doors are popping up to whisk people away to far off lands. Back in the city with Saeed and Nadia the fighting is becoming more urgent, and people are fleeing their homes to become refugees in far off places.
Saeed and Nadia enter one of these doors and end up on Mykonos in Greece and join hundreds of other migrants in a refugee camp with scant resources and not enough of anything to go around. In the novel Hamid alternates between what is happening to Saeed, Nadia, and the other migrants, and how the wider global community is approaching the issue of these doors. These scenes focus on the nativist and xenophobic policies being put into place by large Western Governments to protect their own interests. There is a family rounded up by an ICE-like organization on the tourist beaches of California.
These two separate lines of story along with the frequent purple prose that doesn’t feels like philosophical side musings of Hamid, make the novel feel over written, and take away from the story of mental and emotional toll of becoming a refugee. The reader, or listener, sees Saeed and Nadia grow as lovers and as people. They cling to each other for a sense of familiarity, but tensions arise and as they become comfortable and begin to find stability they pair begins to grow apart, they fall for other people and separate to lead their own lives. I wish that the story had spent more time with these characters as characters and less with them as props for the plot where we can see the tensions grow but never feel close enough to really grasp what is happening to them as people.
Ultimately, I enjoyed parts of this book, but felt like it fell short of much of the hype in other places. I’m glad to see the attention it is getting because I think it is another way to start conversations about refugees that we as a nation and a world should be having on a personal level as well as a governmental one. But it still feels like there is something missing, or it is trying to be too many things going in too many directions when a single story might have been stronger.
An aside with some real spoilers: This didn’t affect my listening or my feelings on the book overall, but when Nadia and Saeed grow apart in California and find new love interests Nadia falls in love with a woman. I may have screeched when walking through a park upon hearing this because Bi-representation (even if the term isn’t used) is always very close to my heart. Her falling in love with a woman while Saeed was growing distant and falling for someone else didnt feel any more forced than any of the other relationships in the story. I know this grabbed my attention because I continue forget to grab the books on my list that have good bi-representation, and I felt like this did a fairly good job.
Recommendation: This was an interesting book, and I feel like being able to talk about it might help out at any event where you need to talk about current trends in books, and it adds an interesting fictional layer to the already complicated issues of globalization, migrants, and refugees. Listening to it was enjoyable and added some much-needed entertainment to my walks to and from work. So, get it from your library, listen to it, and let me know what you think because I’m still trying to make up my mind about this book.