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Exit West

Exit West (2017) is a slim novel by Mohsin Hamid. The book was selected for the 2017 Booker Prize longlist and, for reasons I can't put my finger on exactly, praised by a lot of critics. The story follows Saeed and Nadia, who live in a city in the grips of civil war. We’re not told what city this is, but Homs easily comes to mind. The two fall in love and decide they must flee. Lucky for them, or so they believe, magical portals are opening up around the world. Through them they can transport themselves elsewhere, if they’re able to slip by the guards or find one unattended.

Interestingly, the first such door is in Shinjuku (Kabukicho, judging by the description). Some gangster-type fellow (drinking whisky he didn’t pay for but is entitled to, for whatever reason) with tattoos and a knife in his pocket, spots two young Filipinas dressed in “tropical” clothing and standing by the portal. I’m not sure if Hamid has been to Shinjuku, but young Filipinas in skimpy summer clothes at night, even in winter, is a not unusual sight in the bar hostess district (or perhaps that’s where he got the idea). Anyway, Saeed and Nadia migrate (by means of a magic door) to Mykonos, then to “Dark London” (or “Halo London”), and then later to California, where their relationship soon turns sour. The end.

No, the novel isn’t as straightforward or bereft of complexity, but it doesn’t go so deep or wide either. To be perfectly honest, I can’t understand where all the hype over the book came from. The premise is intriguing: migrants use magic doors to transport themselves to safety and seemingly greener pastures, only to be marginalized and attacked by mobs when they arrive. But Saeed and Nadia are woefully underdeveloped. Saeed in particular. And I don’t get why Hamid felt it necessary to remind us often that Nadia smokes pot and doesn’t follow the traditions and norms of her people.

The writing is good apart from the excessive comma use, which I thought made the prose unnecessarily stilted, most of all in the first couple chapters. That said, I don’t regret reading the book. It has its moments, and Hamid had the balls to write about refugee crises, which is something, but if only he’d fleshed things out more (characters, themes, plot, etc.) Also, why not name the unnamed city? Since the destinations are actual places, it's not clear why he chose not to call Homs (or another city) by its actual name.


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