Book Review: Exit West [by Mohsin Hamid]

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Exit West will perhaps never be more pertinent, in its portrayal of two migrants in an unidentified city (perhaps somewhere in the large map of the Middle East) who leave their homeland (stifled by militant control) in search of safer shores. The two are lovers; Saeed, a devout and familial man, and Nadia, an independent, free-spirited woman. They leave their city through mysterious ‘doors’ that can transport people to other places (very Narnia-esque). Hamid received many accolades for this book, the NY Times named it one of the best books of ’17, and it was shortlisted for the Booker for the same year.

And I really, really, wanted to love it. 

I’m a bit nervous to say I didn’t, actually. I normally like, or at least can appreciate the Man Booker nominees especially, but in this case, the book – though it deals with such a significant issue that we read about every day – just totally failed to resonate with me. I had to examine it, had to wonder whether I’ve been reading too many books with a western outlook (which is true, I certainly have) and if that’s clouded my appreciation of texts which originate from third-world countries. But I don’t think that’s the case here, and it would be unfair for me to pretend to like it even though it deals with an issue as important as migration and refuge. I don’t regret reading it, and I’m glad it was written, for sure, but at no point was I caught up in the narrative.

Hamid’s style of writing is somewhat languidly mechanical, and I could have liked that, but the pieces just didn’t quite come together for this novel. One of the things that annoyed me most was Hamid’s use of commas. The copy of the book I have is in a well-sized print, and at first I thought it was just a throwaway thing, with one or two sentences in the first fifty-odd pages. But no, the whole book is made up of sentences which just trawl forever. Hamid has at points written a measly three or four sentences to two and a half pages. It was not nitpicking on my part, it’s just something that was quite easy to pick up on, and it made no sense. It didn’t add any urgency to the narrative (in fact, the opposite), and it made the otherwise fluid sentences seem clumsy and badly structured, almost slightly child-like, as Hamid crammed one idea after another into one sentence, separated by commas followed by ands, and so on.

However, my biggest issue with the book is this: Hamid refuses to show us anything. When I talked about Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family, I discussed this as well, and I liked the book in spite of it. However, I should say that Clegg’s characters at least show a little of something. Hamid gives no such responsibility to his characters, and as such, I never believed them. I couldn’t believe Saeed and Nadia in love. I couldn’t believe Saeed’s parents in love. If I’d been given the opportunity, I would have, but Hamid never shows us, he tells. Saeed and Nadia spend time together. They smoke up, they chat about space and travel. Later, they argue. Their relationship is like a secret we’re just expected to be in on. If it hadn’t made up a significant part of the book (there are hardly any regular characters apart from the two) I would have given it a pass, but in this case, where they were the central characters who represented the crisis of displacement, I just couldn’t.

…for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.

Hamid occasionally interspersed the narrative with stories of other people – lovers, escapees and so on, but many of these perspectives didn’t seem particularly relevant to me. I was just wondering, huh, why are we switching tracks? The aspect of magical doors was an interesting quirk and I wanted badly to be invested in the storyline and in the character arcs, but they were deliberately sketched, it seemed, to be isolated from the reader. As we followed Saeed and Nadia through doors to Greece, England, and then America, they simply consistently remained estranged from the reader.

I was fairly disappointed in this book. I do plan to read more of Hamid sometime. The refugee experience is, I’m sure, diverse and expansive and difficult to write about. Hamid occasionally succeeded in capturing these moments of loss, pain, and the search for something close to peace. But would I read a whole book for that, a book which can’t flesh out characters or allow us to be invested in them? Probably not.

All quotes attributed to the respective work.

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