Published 2017 by Riverhead Books
Genre: Literary Fiction/Migrant Love Story
March 2017 Book of the Month Club Selection
My Rating: 4/5 Stars
I chose Exit West as my Book of the Month Club pick almost immediately when the choices came out. With everything we hear in the news daily and the state of the current world, it seemed timely and necessary to pick up this novel right away. I had heard nothing but stellar reviews leading up to my reading and was excited to find that it did not disappoint.
Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, two students who begin a relationship right as their country, unnamed but likely somewhere in the Middle East, is on the brink of civil war. The novel follows their budding relationship as it struggles to form amidst the violence and destruction around them, and we see them as they attempt to leave and find a better life elsewhere. It would have been easy to write a novel about a city at war without also writing about a romance. However, I think Hamid made an important and powerful statement by choosing the focus on Saeed and Nadia’s relationship just as much as on the war. Life continues. For survivors of tragedy, for those living in a country being torn apart, they must find a way to stay alive still hold on to whatever they can from their life before. They are still regular people, set it irregular and tragic circumstances. The horrors we see on the news are only part of the story that is going on, and I think it is too easy to forget that. On page four of the novel, Hamid writes,
But that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.
This beautiful quote stuck with me for the entirety of the novel, and I think it is at the heart of what this novel is about. Life continues on, until it just doesn’t anymore. Even when war is tearing apart the world around you.
The first half of the book was the strongest. As Book of the Month judge Leigh Haber put it, “nothing I’ve read before has made me feel what is is to have your native city become an uninhabitable war zone.” This was true for me as well–the details in the first half, while we are in this unnamed city falling into war, were strong enough as to give me a glimpse into the experience of those whose homeland was falling down around them. As I sit here writing this, sipping a London Fog with the morning sun flooding in the windows and my dog curled up beside me, I think about what an impressive feat that is. My safe, sheltered life looks nothing like Saeed and Nadia’s, and yet their story felt so real and it will stick with me for years to come.
In one chapter, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In the chapter titled “Time Passes,” Woolf shows the reader the passing of time during the war as the house sits empty and decays. We are told of the tragic events that befall the characters, both from the war and otherwise, in brackets, as if they are nothing but interjections, almost even after-thoughts. Details that need to be told but don’t need to be dwelled upon, at least not by the house or by time, the “characters” of this section. I was reminded of this in Exit West, because of the way we are told of a Saeed’s mother’s death. It is reported, swiftly, brutally, and matter-of-factly. The two novels are nothing alike, the wars they describe have very little in common. But the way war in general makes you see death is much the same. It becomes inevitable, it is brutal, but it is part of life, and life must continue on.
The elements of magical realism in this novel were a surprise to me, but I think Mohsin wielded them skillfully. I was never troubled by the fact that I had to suspend reality just a bit. In fact, I think it allowed the story to move in a way that would not otherwise be possible, and allowed for more focus to be put on the characters themselves, rather than on their methods of traveling from place to place. I found it to be fascinating and original. All of these things being said, what makes this a 4 Star read for me and not a 5 Star is the fact that I felt like there could have been so much more in the second half of the book. The first half was so real and powerful, but while I enjoyed the last half, it didn’t affect me nearly as much. I loved the magical realism that really gains its footing in the second half, but not much else really struck me. Nearly all my take-aways come from the first hundred pages, and I think the ending should have stuck with me more than it did.
It’s probably difficult to follow up a section where the characters are literally struggling to survive amidst a war. However, refugees and migrants don’t exactly have it easy in today’s world, and I wanted to feel immersed in that experience the same way I was in the beginning of the novel. It was there I think, just not as strong or fully realized.
Criticisms of the second half aside, I will not soon be forgetting this book. I highly recommend it, both because I like the story and think it ought to be shared, but also because I think everyone ought to take a step out of their own comfort zone and place themselves in the shoes of someone else living a very different life. Exit West did that for me. Have you read it? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!