Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is a tricky book to pin down. It begins, straightforwardly enough, in a city crowded with refugees and about to be overrun by war. The city is never named and you are left to decide for yourself whether Hamid might have a specific place in mind or whether this could stand for any city on the brink of war.

The two central characters, Nadia and Saeed, meet at an evening class.

“It might seem off that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class ... 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.”
We watch as that normal life crumbles around them, as militants take over the city, as the bombs come closer and closer, as they start to look for a way out.

And at this point, the story deviates from reality and take on the qualities of an allegory. Because in this world doors are opening up. Doors where, wif you step through, you walk out into a different part of the world.

To begin with, this does not change the trajectory of Nadia and Saeed’s lives that much, as – like so many refugees in our world – the first place they find themselves in is an overcrowded and ill-equipped Greek island. Resentment and nativism rear their ugly heads. Again and again, they flee.

But gradually, Hamid’s narrative implies, the fact that anyone, anywhere can step through a door and find themselves in another country begins to change the nature of the world. The concepts of borders and national identities grow hazier.

In the end, the novel is both an indictment of the West’s failure of understanding and its treatment of refugees, and an uplifting vision of what the world might be if we abandoned the idea of nation states.

In keeping with the allegorical nature of the story, our viewpoint remains slightly detached throughout. We are a camera hovering just above the scene, following Nadia and Saeed like a fly on the wall documentary team without ever fully entering their minds. There is little, if any, dialogue, only a few reported speeches. We are sitting at the feet of a story teller, not watching a play.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, A Country of Refuge (ed Lucy Popescu), The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

Avoid If You Dislike: Allegorical style, stories that depart from realism

Perfect Accompaniment: Olive bread and fresh mint tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Allegorical Fiction

Available on Amazon

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