Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Book club choice)

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least yet not openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.

Exit West cover image

As the title of this post states, this book was one selected by the book group I attend. Taking a swing around my site I think it’s easy to see that this novel shoved me completely outside of my reading comfort zone, which is exactly what I hoped for when I joined the book group.

Exit West is a book that is both very easy and very difficult to describe, I found. On the face of it, it is a love story between two people forced to migrate from their home in a time of violent conflict. But the book didn’t tell that story in the way I expected, or in a way that I am accustomed to.

Saeed meets Nadia at an evening class in their unnamed city, and their relationship develops at first slowly, tentatively, but then at an increasingly pressured pace as their circumstances force them together and away from everything they have known. The rise of civil war in their neighbourhood leads Nadia and Saeed to flee their home through a dark doorway to elsewhere.

These ‘doors’ are a very interesting aspect of the novel. When reading the premise of Exit West, it does at first feel odd that the entire process of a migration is, essentially, completely missed out. It is of course possible to see these doors as a metaphor for that process, but I also felt that the journey of migrants, in that very physical, tangible sense, is not the story that was being told here.

The fact that Saeed and Nadia’s home city and country go unnamed, as do all the other characters we encounter in the novel, makes it clear that what we as a reader are to invest in is the development of the relationship between these two protagonists, and how this is driven by their outside circumstances. Because their situation is so desperate, Saeed and Nadia seem to experience a relationship in microcosm; compressing into around a year what would to most be a lifetime’s worth of trial, conflict, compromise, passion, joy and tears.

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

For me, the big ‘takeaway’ from Exit West is how much I found to relate to in a story that takes place in circumstances for which I have almost zero frame of reference; a commentary on the universality of human experience, most particularly of love and loss. Mohsin Hamid is clearly a writer who cares very deeply not only about the story he is telling, but the way in which he tells it. Whilst I confess I did at times find the lilting prose and lengthy poetic descriptions a little distracting, much of the phrasing in this book is quite beautiful.

I did enjoy Exit West, despite that fact that it differs so drastically from the kind of book I would usually choose. I would be unlikely to class this novel as a favourite, but I am certainly glad that I read it. It was thought-provoking and refreshingly easy to read, which I was not expecting given the subject matter. A good lesson in departing from my normal routine from time to time.

The end of the world can be cosy at times.

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