Friday 12 May 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid has divided many readers and reviewers. (For an interesting cross section of responses try My Booking Great Read, Michael @Knowledge Lost, Rachel @Pace Amore, Libri, and Kate @Books are my Favourite and Best).

I was therefore prepared for the pared back, deceptively simple writing style that has kept many reviewers at an emotional distance.

Curiously I embraced it - I never felt distanced or detached at all. Every word and phrase popped with restrained emotion and hidden depths.

I am not an effusive, flowery kind of person.
I consider myself to be discreet and reticent in person. But I'm often a seething, swirling mess of contradictory feelings underneath.

Nadia and Saeed felt like versions of me. Cautious, quiet, thoughtful, understated, but with a lot going on inside.

Hamid's writing style suited my temperament to a tee.

Exit West also came into my life at the right time.

I began reading Exit West immediately after I finished the wonderful award winning The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose and straight after seeing the ABC's Book Club episode that featured the book.

Generally speaking, if Marieke Hardy likes a book, I do too (one obvious exception being her love affair with Amis which I simply do not share). It felt like the book gods (or at least Marieke) were telling me that this book had to be next. I was ready and receptive and the book was on hand.

The Museum of Modern Love contained themes of silence, connection, time, loss and love.
So did Exit West.

As I began reading, it felt in a weird way that is hard to adequately explain, that the love and connection I had for the language, art & ideas in Rose's book flowed straight into what I was experiencing in Exit West.
So much so that Hamid's startling (but sparing) use of magic realism ended up being an added bonus for me, not a distraction or in the least off-putting.

From the rather terrifying appearance of the very first door, I was intrigued...and hooked.

In an interview with Cressida Leyshon in The New Yorker last year, Hamid discussed the use of the magical doors that transported refugees from a place of danger to a place of greater safety in an instant.
I don’t entirely believe in the reality of realism. Lived human experience is too weird. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains are constantly constructing a representation of the world that is useful but is also inaccurate, invented. Mystics tell us much the same. I’ve always had an element of the unreal in my books. A little bit of the unreal can heighten our sense of reality by allowing us to experience something that knows it is a fiction but feels at the same time true. In the past, the strand of unreality I’ve explored has mostly been a formal strand, one rooted in the form a novel takes, the way it sets up the story it is telling. This time, the strand of unreality is in the plot, in the physics of the world, with the existence of these doors. The doors felt quite real to me when I was writing them. I could imagine them existing. And they allowed me to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after

Once I got over the unexpected shock of the first door, I liked this device a lot. It took the journey out of the story and made it instead, a story about the gradual disintegration into chaos and war of a once civilised society. And a story about adjusting to a new place - a new place that may not be exactly welcoming.

The new refuges also became Hamid's point of hope for the reader.
In some near distant future these purpose built cities could give us all a way out of our current world-wide refugee crisis (Hamid discusses this further in The New Yorker article linked above).

A colleague felt that the end left too many things unsaid or unexplored in Nadia and Saeed's relationship, the two young lovers at the heart of this story. I've been trying to work out why this didn't concern me and I think it was simply because the ending felt real to me. It wasn't resolved or tied up in a neat bow. I appreciated the layers, the nuance and the messiness of their love. None of the changes or choices that Saeed or Nadia made surprised me - they felt consistent with my perception of them.

Another link between Exit West and The Museum of Modern Love was the occasional reference to art and artists. In this instant, Saeed and Nadia are discussing and sharing images by the photographer, Thierry Cohen.
Nadia thought about this. They were achingly beautiful, these ghostly cities - New York, Rio, Shanghai, Paris - under their stains of stars, images as though from an epoch before electricity, but with the buildings of today. Whether they looked like the past, or the present, or the future, she couldn't decide.
French photographer, Thierry Cohen, Darkened Cities series - Shanghai
The past, the present and the future all played their part in this beautiful story which has become one of my favourite reads for 2017 (and a potential reread as soon as possible).

N.B. One of the other panellist's on The Book Club, Omar Musa, also thought very highly of the book, but his praise was qualified as he felt that Hamid's previous works were stronger and better. Needless to say, I'm now on the lookout for a copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Moth Smoke.


  1. I loved reading your thoughts on Exit West. It's on my list to read this month!

    1. Thanks Kim, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  2. I had to read this review a few times....many insights to digest.
    I'm slowly getting back to 'reading normal'.
    I will continue LOTR...I just needed sometime off.

    1. I sat on writing my response to Exit West for over a week - there was so much I wanted to say and share, but it was hard to bring it together coherently.

      I also made it harder for myself by trying to show the connection I felt between the 3 books.

      Glad to hear that your finding 'normal' again - it's amazing all the things that effect our reading journey.


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