Exit West by Mohsin Hamid #ManBookerPrize

Exit West is Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel and the first one I’ve read. It is on the Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist. When I read about it earlier in the year, I decided this would the one where I would get on board, and with its themes of refugees fleeing war and the challenges of emigration, it seemed pertinent.

It is a story of a young couple Nadia and Saeed who meet in their unnamed home country, which felt to me while reading as if I were reading about Syria, just before the conflict in their country escalates. They meet in the classroom, he with his “studiously maintained stubble”, she in”flowing black robe”. She brushes off his invitation to have coffee initially, eventually agreeing and slowly they develop a friendship, a relationship.

Interspersed with their narrative are brief snapshots of lives being lived at that moment elsewhere – an incident between and man and a woman happening in Australia, a man nursing his Irish whiskey drink in Tokyo. To be honest, I didn’t get what these intrusions into the story were about – perhaps just that life continues elsewhere, oblivious to the dramas of others?

Saeed lives at home with his parents, Nadia lives alone, her robe is her protection, allowing her to live more freely than the alternatives. However as war approached the city, their lives must change and after hearing about an escape route, the couple decide to flee and to create a life elsewhere.

While they are in their hometown it is a story of a young couple attempting to overcome the lack of trust that exists in a culture where independent women live in fear, once they leave it becomes something else, they lack family, friends and community, they try to recreate those things in an environment that is antagonistic towards them. Their memories of what they have left change shape as the are afflicted by nostalgia, regret, loss. They struggle to find their place and even their relationship morphs into something unrecognisable in foreign lands.

There is no voyage, the journey takes place through a door, a portal to another world, to an island in Greece, to London, San Francisco, but the places they travel to bear little resemblance to those places as you and I might know them. They are inaccessible, frightening, there is a sense of them being hunted, of needing to be ready to run, always, it is a fearful dystopian view of supposed freedom from terror; death may have been a more desired alternative after all. And the slow unwinding of their relationship.

The combination of the real and surreal was a bit much for me, somehow it’s easier to go with at the hand of Haruki Murakami, which in a way this reminds me a little of, but while Murakami feels more like pure fantasy, Moshin Hamid invites us to consider a subject that is very real in the modern world today and succeeds in making it disorienting to the reader. Perhaps that is the point.

I read Hala Alyan’s novel Salt Houses (click title to read review) this year, which was also a novel of displacement, centred around multiple generations of Palestinian refugees, who attempt to make new lives in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and America and the challenges they face, even when they are able to retain certain family connections. It’s a cultural loss that is not apparent on the surface, that Alyan digs deep into to reveal the subtle layers.

It makes an interesting complement to Mohsin Hamid’s perspective of loss and dislocation.

For a more enlightened view of what this novel portends to show the reader, check out the following reviews:

Further Reading:

The AtlanticExit West and the Edge of Dystopia, by Sophia Gilbert

The GuardianMagic and violence in migrants’ tale by Andrew Motion

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Man Booker Prize Long List 2017

 

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15 thoughts on “Exit West by Mohsin Hamid #ManBookerPrize

  1. I loved this book, and I thought the metaphor of the doors worked well. I said in my review (https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/05/31/exit-west-by-mohsin-hamid/) that “maybe Hamid thought that readers are sick of reading about desperate flights from horror, or maybe he didn’t want to waste book space retelling a complex journey. Maybe he wanted the focus to be solely on what happens when refugees arrive in a world new to them.” Which tragically, seems to be the unravelling of their relationship, which made me wonder how common that might be…

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  2. I like Mohsin Hamid’s work, so was disconcerted by your comparison, for this work, with Haruki Murukami, whom I don’t get on with one bit. Only one thing for it. I’ll have to read it, and decide for myself!

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    • Interesting as I thought I’d enjoy it more, and I definitely recommend you read it to find out, I’m not sure if his other novels leave reality in the same way to enter the surreal, I just found it too heady and needed the explanations.

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  3. I’m so glad I found you! I’m always looking for thoughtful reviews of books I may (or may not want) to read, and yours answer a lot of the questions I would ask a trusted friend. There are so many books and so little time, and I really do rely on a few well-read, like-minded personal and online friends to help me decide what to put on my list. Thank you for writing!

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    • Yes, I’m not sure if that’s his usual style or not, it took me a while to figure out it was a dystopian view as the first half seemed so realistic, it’s like half real, half surreal, the past and the future.

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  4. I really liked Exit West though not as much as I enjoyed Reluctant Fundamentalist. I liked that slow shift from realist to more surreal and almost dream-like as the novel progressed. My only issue was I’d have liked to have read more of the story of Saeeds fathers life after he stayed behind – there was something in his love and loss that I wanted to read more about.

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    • Yes, I think I got too comfortable with that family and situation and wanted to know more there too, ironically of course as it has become such a danger. Have you a favourite to recommend from what you’ve read so far this year?

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      • For me it’s Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, brilliantly depicted display of the more subtle inheritance we have within us from our ancestors, demonstrated through their stories. Both those two you mention on my radar! And that newly translated Julio Llamazares!

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  5. I’ve only read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by this author, which I enjoyed and I thought this might be the novel for me to get back to him, but I’m not sure about the surreal/dystopian element. It’s a bit of a gamble – if it’s effective in conveying the disorientation and displacement of seeking refuge in a foreign land then it’s a success, but if it distances the reader its failed in doing what it set out to do. Really interesting review!

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    • I guess it was as many have commented that they loved it, it just wasn’t effective in conveying those things for me personally, I found it confusing and lost interest in trying to understand what was really happening. I much prefer to actually read about the different and varied experiences, I had a clearer sense of the displacement in Hala Alyan’s novel as her characters moved from country to country, it was clear what they had lost and how it happened within the family itself. Exit West showed the gradual loss of what was one very new relationship. They were young, so their stories will have continued and might have been quite different to what they were experiencing together.

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  6. Pingback: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh – Word by Word

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