Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
I read it as an: audiobook
Narrator: Mohsin Hamid
Length: 4 hrs 42 min
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Exit West takes place initially in an unnamed country that begins peaceful and then erupts into violence and warfare. Though it is explicitly not named, I read it to be a place like Syria, though really it is so politically relevant that pretty much anywhere in the world could be the setting. The narrative follows Saeed, a fairly traditional and sweet young man, and Nadia, a feisty and independent young woman. They meet in a class they are taking together and begin a relationship. When their city breaks out into violence, Nadia and Saeed are torn as to whether they should stay, or if they will try to escape. Then they learn about mysterious doors that are opening around the city which will whisk people away to faraway places of safety. However, the doors are usually found quickly and are heavily guarded, either by the military and thus forbidden, or by the rebels and thus exorbitantly expensive to get through. Nadia and Saeed eventually decide to try their luck with the doors and flee the city, joining the flood of refugees worldwide, not knowing where the door will take them or if what they find on the other side will be worse than what they left behind.
This was one of those books that, at first, I thought was going to be an interesting read that I would get through quickly (which I did) and then move on from. I was not expecting the way it casually sucker punched me right in the feels when I wasn’t looking. It was unexpected because the book overall was so quiet. It just floated along and then BAM! A line comes along that is just so beautiful, or painful, or touching, or all three, that I found myself without breath, and a couple times actually crying. This highlights the struggles of the immigrant experience, and how it is hard to leave a place you have called home no matter how bad things might be getting there. It also shows that, while the physical leaving might in the end be easy, it is not easy to be an immigrant, which is not something that should need to be explained to anyone, but apparently it is.
The doors were interesting, reminiscent of the train system in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. They are magic doors and no one knows where they come from or where they will take you, except that it will be to a safer, better place than where you are now. I do wish the way out of Saeed and Nadia’s country had been portrayed in a more realistic manner. But maybe it doesn’t matter how they get out but that they get out. The doors are also an intriguing discussion on liminality and the in-between, neither here nor there places of the world, which could be a huge long paper in and of itself and which I can’t write about here at the moment.
I confess I had a hard time really identifying much with either Saeed or Nadia, because they seemed at times to be kind of flat. However, I think this is intentional. I think if I were a refugee and had lived through the things they had, I would be fairly numbed to a lot of things and probably come across as flat to a lot of people as well. I might be hard to relate to or to understand, too.
The prose was fabulous and fabulistic, creating a setting that was simultaneously sharp and dangerous yet magical and somehow hopeful in the end. The only thing I didn’t care for was that I listened to this on audio and the author narrated it himself. I thought his reading was a little monotonous. But the story itself was so good that it hardly made a difference to the overall experience.