Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: Book Review

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book synopsis:
In a city brimming with turmoil slowly about to erupt into a war zone, two young people dare to become a couple. Saeed finds in Nadia what people could call his polar opposite, a free, independent spirit. And Nadia sees in Saeed a handsome, kind-hearted man. In this city where loneliness is not only encouraged but in multiple ways enforced, Nadia and Saeed clasp each other tight and step through magic doors as they exit west to an uncertain future as migrants.

20170906_155158_FotorAfter turning the last page of this short novel and entering the room where thoughts of all the things that this book was and wasn’t run wild, it is difficult to refrain from seeing similarities between Saeed and Nadia and myself as a person exiting west towards my own hopeful and uncertain future. As an immigrant for five years now coming from a country that serves as a first stop and most times as the only hope for refugees, I have experienced some of the good and bad of uprooting yourself from a place that cannot offer something you need. Living as an outsider is becoming more and more of a global state, so it is strange to me how people still view migrants and refuges with hate, uncertainty verging at times on the edge of misanthropy.

To love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.

20170906_155032_FotorIn his Man Booker longlisted novel, Mohsin Hamid attempts to write a beautiful story with powerful moments about two young people in an unnamed Country somewhere in the Middle East. It starts with Saeed making the first step into connecting with another human who on the outside seems rather difficult to approach. And in fact she is, for Nadia has been shunned by her family for not being religious and for being an independent voice that refuses to be scared into submission by a place that wants women something smaller, something less. As is the case with many stories between two lovers in their beginning, their attraction is forceful. Unlike most stories however the situation is dire and downright dangerous. Unthinkable to a western mind like mine. Bullets flying and shuttering windows, communications go black, not just the internet but also the phone lines, curfews are put in place, and one could be murdered for simply walking down the street. Amidst the chaos, the two newly involved people struggle to hold on to each other as they come to represent what is widely considered acceptable and feasible desires and wishes of daily life, communication, human connection, friendship, love, good times. As things become progressively worse, Nadia is invited to stay with Saeed for safety until they finally discover a way out of there. Because magical doors are appearing in the globe, doors that could take you anywhere from a mountaintop to a hotel bathroom, to safety, uncertainty, a different future. And so it is that Saeed and Nadia find their way to Mykonos where they have to find a way to stay together and stay safe.

We are all migrants through time.

In the first half of the book, Mohsin Hamid shows that he is capable of writing a powerful story. It takes seconds to read a sentence that slams and echoes in your brain so that it lasts for hours as you take this book and every other book in your mind’s storage where they can have their effect on you, as books do. The problem is though that Hamid is not a debut author, and so I cannot understand why there are so many shortcomings in this book that tries so much and achieves so little. In fact I keep asking myself what was the point of this novel? It is not really a love story but also not a story about migration. Because how could the author have the brilliant idea to make a book to discuss such a contemporary, crucial part of the 21st century and skip through it in 230 double-spaced, abundantly marginalised pages? Hamid could have striken gold there, with two characters of much potential, a war-zone under the pen of an author perfectly capable of doing justice to its cruel reality, and a perfectly realistic plotline that could have made a story worthy the tears of thousands of readers. Instead he takes the easy way out, such an easy way out that an author of his calibre should not be allowed to employ.

Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.

It is my first time reading Hamid’s work and I think this is the first time he attempts magical realism so am I to assume he thought this to be too big of an undertaking and looked for a quick way out (see what I did there?). Much like in another Man Booker nominee of this year, The Underground Railroad, where the railroad becomes an actual, physical one that takes people away from one place of slavery to what they hope will be a place of freedom, and very much like Monsters Inc. where you step through the door and there you are in a little kid’s wardrobe ready to scare the crap out of them, Hamid creates actual doors – bathroom doors, entrance doors – that, after you step through, you find yourself somewhere else in the world. Ugh, the frustration! Hamid can shoot a bullet through your heart in seconds with his prose. He can be cruel, brutal and deadly honest. He can write war, he can show fear, he can create disgust and anger. To just imagine what this novel could have been, had he decided to take us on the journey of Saeed and Nadia away from their country and to allow us to go through it with them..

And so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.

20170906_154504_FotorExit West is written as if when you are walking down a busy street and you have a destination and a route, and you know you cannot avoid other people who are moving along and against your way, so you are slightly brushing off each one individual until you get there. That is what Hamid did, slightly brushed off his characters, introducing a few important aspects of self that made me care for Nadia but not so much for Saeed who felt like a less realised personality, Nadia being a strong character with the author trying to hard to hide how extraordinary such a character in the given situation is but at times managing the opposite result. As if Hamid is casually being a feminist but lacks the skill to appear casual in his portrait of feminism. He slightly brushes off a love story as if it is a three-step process arriving to various endings. And he slightly brushes off migration completely skipping emigration. It is simply a chance to rip our heart’s out that went vainly out the window.

I can definitely understand how people have loved this book, especially if they are more accustomed to shorter stories than I am, but to me the book needed a much slower pace and it is a shame to see the potential of a grand idea for the story and of the author himself, in his writing, go to a much humbler novel that uses the poor excuse of imagination magical doors as a storytelling basis. It was an enjoyable read, filled with waster potential that I would hope to not see in the Man Booker shortlist next week.
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