Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Published March 2017, Read March 2017
March 2017 Book of the Month Club Selection
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥ (of 5)
“…when the tension receded there was calm, the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be.”
Mohsin Hamid is a truth-teller. His new novel Exit West may be brief, but it is loaded with difficult realities and beautiful life in the midst of them. Touted as a “migrant love story,” Exit West at first reads like a straight-forward narrative of two lovers caught up in the midst of a devastating conflict, escaping along the well-worn tracks of today’s refugees from Syria and Yemen. Interspersed a brief vignettes of other lives, which, at first, make little sense. I don’t want to spoil the revelatory moment, but once the meaning of the doors becomes clear, one feels a powerful blooming sensation from head to toe.
Mohsin Hamid in a gentle and passive way reveals the dystopian world the refugees currently fleeing conflict all over the earth live. Dystopian fiction is a hugely popular genre, but Hamid pushes his novel further to reveal the lives of billions of people living amidst our greatest fears. Let me be clear: Hamid’s Exit West does not fall into the current dystopian genre, but instead reveals the privileged viewpoint those novels use. For much of our fellow human beings, dystopia is already here. Nadia and Saeed, our main characters, face nativist and nationalist violence endorsed by powerful governments, militarized responses to humanitarian crises, and powerful disenfranchisement under countries known for their democratic ideals. While fictionalized, these are real for the millions of refugees fleeing not just the Middle East, but countries we have forgotten in our twenty-four hour news cycle.
Mohsin Hamid crafts a powerful love story. This is not a love story like you find in Nicholas Sparks novels. There is no fairy tale ending, or beginning for that matter. It is painful, raw, and real. It is not a universal love story, either. It is one born of circumstances many reading this novel can only imagine (and only manage that because of books like this one). Nadia and Saeed’s circumstances, however, are those of millions. They are the lived experiences of the millions of neglected, abused, and hated refugees.
While reading, I thought Exit West earned a solid four out of five, but once I figured out what Hamid was doing with his characters and settings, I felt like something inside of me had exploded. Again, I do not want to ruin the revelatory moment as I believe it is one of the greatest pleasures of reading good books, so I will leave it here. All I can say is that it is so worth it.
Without question, this book should be required reading for all, especially those living in privilege around the world. I truly believe Exit West is capable of breaking through the naivete and ignorance shrouding us and informing our attitudes towards refugees. Mohsin Hamid’s book is a rare story with the ability to change minds and lives.