Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

Now that I’ve read (or listened to) eight and a bit of the Booker longlist, I can see patterns emerging in the choices: like Autumn and Home FireMohsin Hamid’s Exit West deals with contemporary conflicts, the migrations they cause, and the subsequent fractures in Western countries; like The Underground RailroadExit West adds an element of fantasy, in the doors that open into other countries and allow migration, and thus invites us to imagine this historical moment from a new angle.

Hamid’s approach to the stories of migrants escaping war and economic hardship gives Exit West a hopeful mood, despite often painful events; its gentle, somewhat distant narration was welcome after the emotional intensity of Home Fire (and perhaps that tone or effect is something he shares with Sebastian Barry….).

At the center of this novel are a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet and fall in love in an unnamed country that seems a lot like Syria, but also several other places where vibrant urban places have been consumed by violence. As conditions worsen and militants seize control of more and more of their city, they hear about mysterious doors through which people are escaping. Eventually, they pay an agent to lead them to one, and find themselves first on Mykonos, then in London, then in Marin.

What happens in these places is sometimes an exaggeration of reality (millions of migrants building new shantytowns outside London), but as with the magical doors, a reflection on the hard realities of migration. Woven through Saeed and Nadia’s story are brief vignettes of others who travel through doors, or whose lives are affected by the arrival of migrants on their doorsteps. Even in short sketches, he gives these people a reality, a bit of history and personality. 

Exit West can feel dreamy and abstract, it’s narration fairly distant. Here’s a flavor:

That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move, much of the global south headed to the global north, but also southerners moving to other southern places and northerners moving to other northern places.

or

One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire.

For the most part, I found this style engaging, because Hamid always returns from these generalizations to the particular story of Nadia and Saeed. But sometimes I found the novel too given to epigrammatic pronouncements like “We are all migrants through time” that it maybe didn’t quite earn. Ultimately, I preferred the way Ali Smith and Kamila Shamsie told stories that combined “big picture” themes with the lives of individual characters. But that’s a personal preference more than a critique of this novel, which I think is excellent. Like Home Fire, this one would work well in an undergraduate class, because it’s a novel stuffed with ideas but grounded in a story of young love and self-discovery. There’s so much more to say about it than I’ve said here!

My personal Booker shortlist is taking shape, and I’m pretty sure Exit West will keep a place on it. What a great list this year’s is proving to be. I’ve really only read one that made me wonder “How did this get here?” As of this writing, I’ve got ten days before the shortlist announcement and four books to read (two of which are still in transit to me). I probably won’t quite make it, but I’ll finish well before the winner is announced. It may be a while before I find time to post again–hello, first week of classes!–but I’ll eventually write something about the rest of the list.

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4 Responses to Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

  1. Sunita says:

    I agree with you on the strengths and weaknesses. Hamid seems to be a writer who is more interested in ideas than characters, but these characterizations are much stronger than those in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where people were conduits for positions. As we were discussing on Twitter, I would love to teach this and some other nominees in a class that combined real-world issues with fictional accounts. As I said in my review, I don’t think this novel sustains itself across the entire storyline as well as the Smith does, but I wouldn’t be at all sorry to see it on the shortlist.

    Good luck with the first week! I started last week and thank goodness for Labor Day. I almost have my ducks in order. Almost.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I read Reluctant Fundamentalist years ago (not sure I finished this) and this felt much less polemical and more human to me. One of the things I really liked about it–and about the Smith as well–is that it is so hopeful, sometimes funny, despite the subject matter. People in this novel, both the main characters and the walk-ons, survive and adapt, though not without difficulty. (that’s a tone or a point of view I think it shares with Ali Smith, and really with the Barry book too, though this one is much gentler and less grim. I think it’s style is kind of distancing but honestly that came as a welcome break. Actually Zadie Smith at her best, which I didn’t think Swing Time was, is also great at confronting big political questions through specific human stories. Maybe all fiction does that, but the politics in many of these books feel more “world historical” than is always the case).

  2. Teresa says:

    This is a good one. It’s right on the edge of my shortlist, so whether it makes it depends on how well I like the two books I have left (Elmet and History of Wolves). I really liked the writing style and the relationship between the two main characters. The vignettes didn’t quite work for me–I wished they’d been made into separate chapters. And setting it next to Home Fire, which I just finished, makes the ideas in this one seem kind of simplistic.

    But the fact that this is near the bottom of my shortlist speaks to how strong this year’s list is. I haven’t encountered a single dud. (I couldn’t finish Barry because the writing irritated and bored me, but I could see that he was doing something well that I just wasn’t interested in.)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’ve been really impressed by this year’s list as well. I read Exit Rest right after Home Fire and maybe that exaggerated for me the feeling that it was somewhat detached and too obvious at times.

      The two you have left look like an interesting thematic pair, with the parent(s) who have opted out of the “normal” world–but Elmet sounds a lot stranger and potentially more interesting.

      I’ve got 3 to go so I’m sure I won’t finish them all before the shortlist announcement, but I do plan to read them all soon. I’m especially looking forward to Reservoir 13.

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