Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books, 2017)

This book was what I expected and not at all what I expected at the same time. It is the story of two refugees, Nadia and Saeed, who fall in love and then flee from an unnamed city under siege. It is the story of migration and refugee camps and falling in love and falling slowly out of love. It’s also a sort of fairy tale, a story of magic realism. Many of the details are kept vague, particularly the city and country that Nadia and Saeed are from and none of the other characters are given names. This gives the story a sort of flexibility, a sense that we could be almost anywhere. Later, when they leave their country the places they go are named (Greece, London, San Francisco) and I found myself wishing they weren’t in order to maintain that feeling.

Nadia and Saeed meet in an evening class they both attend. They are young and educated. Saeed lives with his parents while Nadia lives alone, somewhat unusual for a woman in their conservative culture. Theirs is a very normal story set against the abnormality of war. It’s not hard to sympathize with the two as they get to know each other and fall in love. The story feels familiar, except for the militants who encroach on their city or the violence that forms the background of their lives.

As conditions worsen, Saeed and Nadia make the choice to leave their city, knowing that they will likely never return. They make it to Greece which is full of refugees before going to London. This world is ours but not quite ours as we know it. It is a world in flux with mass migration. The borders have begun to disappear and everyone is trying to figure out what that means, how people should live and where.

The power of Exit West is how familiar everything is. How close it is to our own world, how close Nadia and Saeed’s lives are to our own. They don’t “look” like refugees in the way that we so often think refugees should be. They are educated, middle class. They own cell phones and nice clothes. I remember when footage was seen of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe and people complained that they had cell phones, forgetting or not knowing that these were people who lived lives similar to their own. That you don’t flee your home and everything you know unless you believe you have no other choice. 

While Exit West does tell a specific story of two people, it stays fairly general in its style and sometimes this was frustrating. It is trying to tell us a big story, trying to deal with an international issue and so sometimes it felt too non-specific or stretched too thin. Over all though, I think it’s a masterful tale and an important one for our world today.

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