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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Some books we read for entertainment, others we read for enlightenment. Some books are fast paced, entertaining chapter churning fun. Others are relevant, important and thought provoking.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is enlightening, relevant, and thought provoking. This book will not be for everyone – those who read solely for entertainment value will not enjoy this novel as much as readers who quietly contemplate the larger meaning of the text before them. Exit West examines the plight of the displaced and it is heart breaking and hopeful but most importantly, incredibly relevant.

It is the type of book everyone should read – but probably won’t.

 Set in an unnamed city at the edge of Civil War, Saeed and Nadia first meet in an evening class on Corporate Identity and Branding. They meet, he asks her to coffee, thus beginning a relationship both similar and dissimilar to any other budding courtship. They listen to music, send text messages, dream about traveling, explore each other and discuss the future. Yet their relationship is different from many, as their city falls into war and eventually they choose to leave – a part of a mass migration of people; displaced by man’s hunger for power and control.

The doors they pass through lead them to Greece, England and eventually the United States. They face opposition, loss, fear and hope as they journey from their homeland to one new land after another in hope of finding a place in the world where they may have safety and opportunity to begin afresh. The reader sees their relationship as it begins and as it shifts with time and experience. Their experience and growth beautifully captured with passages such as this:

”Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”

This is not a plot novel; its importance is not in the actual movement of the characters or development of their relationship, but rather the general themes and questions their movement evokes. It displays a unique literary structure – an omniscient narrator who keeps the reader at arm’s length and magical realism that straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction. Exit West does so much more than offer glimpses into the relationship between two people in a refugee camp who flee the war torn remnants of their homeland. It begs the reader to examine his or her own attitudes about immigration, colonialism, war, and human migration and the lens with which we view such people and institutions. My favorite chapter is about a woman, who having lived in the same house all her life, observes the coming and going of new people and despite her own stationary physical location realizes, “We are all migrants through time.”

This novel is a dazzling depiction of a modern dystopia that is alarmingly similar to a world we currently live in. It is a beautiful, yet ugly, frightening, yet hopeful, assessment of a world that could be not far into our future.

Buy it

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