“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West

Exit West is the new novel by Mohsin Hamid, who is most well known for his book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was also made into a movie. I have neither read that book nor watched the movie, but Exit West has made quite a splash in literary circles and is currently #9 on The New York Times bestseller list, which is an amazing accomplishment. It’s not that often that we have someone from the Indian subcontinent being interviewed in leading magazines, podcasts, and talk shows, and as someone who is “plugged into” the latest news from the literary world, I was definitely intrigued. In his interviews, Mohsin Hamid came across as very  intelligent and articulate, and he spoke particularly eloquently about his experience as a Muslim in an increasingly Islamaphobic world. I was curious to see how the book had captured his experience and knowledge of the Muslim world, and whether it was a good story. Because, ultimately, that is what really counts — even the most topical novels will fail to have any impact if they’re not well-told stories as well.

Exit West is indeed, set in the Muslim world, in an imaginary Muslim country in which the political situation is rapidly deteriorating. The protagonists of the novel are two citizens of this country, Saeed and Nadia, who meet and fall in love against its violence-ridden backdrop. Things are not so bad when they first meet, but the political crisis escalates rapidly – all around them, people are being killed, the living conditions are unspeakable, the brutality is extreme. Things come to a head when Saeed’s mother is also killed – it makes Saeed and Nadia determined to find a way to escape from their home country. Fortunately for them – and this is where the novel departs from physical reality and enters the territory of magic realism – there are these “magic doors” that function as portals out of the country, and eventually Saeed and Nadia decide to try their luck with one of them. It’s all very clandestine and they have to pay a substantial amount to a middleman for the passage, but one night, furtively in the dark, they finally manage to make their way out of a door. They have no idea where the door leads, but it turns out to be into the Greek island of Mykonos.

At this point, you might think of this as, “Wow! Greece!” and expect a happily-ever-after ending. But we’re only half-way through the book and it turns out that these magic doors exist in many places around the world, allowing lots of people to move from one place to another instantly. However, it’s not that easy to gain access to them. The doors from the “bad” places to the “good” places are heavily guarded, and naturally, no one is interested in the doors going from the “good” to the “bad” places. Needless to say, the mere existence of these doors — the influx through which cannot really be controlled by the country to which they are leading — ends up actually fostering the creation of a slew of migrants all over the world, similar to Saeed and Nadia. These are people escaping from war and poverty in their home countries and attempting to settle in the more stable and affluent countries. The situation is identical to the current refugee crisis in the world, except that in real life, migrants have to travel long distances — often in extremely hazardous conditions­ — to actually get to other countries – there are no magical shortcuts. Apart from this, the situation is similar to what we have now – the migrants are looked down upon by the people of the countries they have escaped to, the governments of those countries want to crack down on them, there is racism, and the migrants are housed in cramped, shanty towns that are not that much better than their living conditions back home.

Exit West was interesting and enjoyable up to this point, but I found myself losing interest in the book after Saeed and Nadia’s first entry to Mykonos and a narration of how life is for them and the other migrants who have also come there from various countries. Not much happens to Saeed and Nadia after that except that they travel to a few more places, including London and San Francisco, and drift apart. There is no other “magic” in the book apart from the doors, which was a little incongruous and somewhat disappointing. After all, if you want to have magic in a story, take it all the way through! Otherwise, just having magic doors to transport you from one place to another without any other change in the world is simply weird. (People in Exit West have smart phones and use social media, so that hasn’t changed.)

Thus, while the premise of the book was very interesting, I thought it simply didn’t live up to the hype. I also had mixed feelings about the writing style, which I found inconsistent — most of the book was written “normally” and was easy to read, when all of a sudden, it occasionally veered off into this bizarre style where there were long paragraphs, often longer than a page, written entirely without a period (i.e., full stop), with only commas to separate out the sentences. I personally find it somewhat pretentious and annoying when writers do this — a good example being Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things, where several words and phrases are capitalized in the middle of sentences. But at least, this technique was consistently used across The God of Small Things, whereas in Exit West, the no-period paragraph style appears haphazardly, in just some places, and therefore sticks out like a sore thumb. I really wish writers would resort to less gimmicks and focus on creating stories that don’t need literary tricks to prop them up. It would make reading their books so much less onerous.

Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: March 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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