What I read
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
What it’s about
Saeed and Nadia meet and fall in love while living in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country, in the midst of civil war. The couple are opposites in many ways, with Saeed being more conservative and Nadia being fiercely independent, but their differences complement each other.
As the violence in their country increases, the couple escapes by passing through a magical door. They’ve heard about these doors and know that by going through one, they will end up in another part of the world, but they won’t know where until they’ve reached the other side.
The novel is interspersed with scenes of others who are fleeing conflict via these magical doors, arriving in places unknown to them, where there is no wartime violence.
This is a story of migration, both in a geographical and in an emotional sense, of the search for a place of belonging, for a home. It’s about how people and places change, how people can change places and how places change people.
Why I picked it up
I’d heard a lot about Exit West before I read it. I saw several reviews and noticed the title popping up on many “best new books” lists.
When books get a lot of attention, I sometimes get wrapped up in the excitement and can be disappointed by a book that couldn’t possibly live up to my unreal expectations. I thought this might happen with Exit West, and so I hesitated to read it right away.
Then I went to see Hamid discuss the book at the Toronto Reference Library. Hearing the author talk about the concepts and themes solidified my interest in reading this book, and a friend kindly lent me her copy.
What I liked about it
Saeed and Nadia are interesting characters. They are clear individuals, with their own distinct personalities and voices, but together their bond makes them a strong unit. I liked that Hamid plays with gender expectations, with Nadia the independent one living on her own, who tries to convince Saeed to have sex with her, while Saeed lives with his parents and wants to wait.
But my favourite part of this book is the way that Hamid writes. The voice of the narrator has such wonderful rhythm and pacing. The prose is filled with long sentences which are punctuated perfectly so that they wind and flow but never lose the reader. And then there are descriptions of a life in a conflict zone, which I am grateful I do not have personal experience with, but the writing here touched me as if I were looking through a window into that world.
You’ll want to read it if…
One of the reasons this book is getting so much attention is because of its timeliness. Hamid didn’t plan this, of course, as the book was written before Trump and Brexit were dominating the headlines. But this well-written story about refugees and globalization makes it a book everyone would benefit from reading right now.
However, this is also a love story. It’s the story of the relationship between Saeed and Nadia. Readers who enjoy literary fiction about romantic relationships between two characters should read this book.
This is a great novel for a single sitting. If you have an afternoon to dive deep into a book–and perhaps also have the evening available to give the story some thought–Exit West is an excellent choice.
Chinese food, just as Saeed and Nadia shared on their first real date.