My third book from this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. This was a title that I hadn’t heard of until its Booker longlisting, and one that I was instantly intrigued by.
Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing – to fall in love – in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it.
Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind – when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world…
Exit West opens in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. Things seem relatively normal at first, with our two protagonists meeting for coffee, an evening meal, and going through the initial steps of establishing a new relationship. Things do soon take a downward turn as the war begins in earnest, however, and particularly when the internet and their mobile phones are cut off, making communication increasingly difficult, and causing a great deal of concern over the safety of each other, their families etc..
Nadia and Saeed are initially unable to leave their homeland, until they begin the hear rumours of doors appearing – doors that will take them to other countries and away from their war-torn homes. Through this element of magical realism, Hamid portrays the issues facing migrants as well as those who, willingly or otherwise, take them in. Whilst this is extremely relevant to today’s world, I personally felt that the treatment of the refugees and the feelings of those who live in the places that they’ve migrated to was a little over-simplified. This is very much the style of Exit West, however, which adopts a sparse narrative style throughout.
Whilst the story focuses upon Nadia and Saeed for the most part, there were also little vignettes depicting unnamed characters completely unrelated to the main storyline. I wasn’t convinced that these sections (there aren’t many, and they are brief) added much to the novel, other than perhaps showing that life, elsewhere, was continuing, and I found them to be a little distracting.
I loved the sound of this novel, but unfortunately found it to be not quite to my taste. I like the premise, but I felt that this was an exercise in style over substance. That said, the Booker does like novels that experiment with structure and style, and so this may go on to win the prize, although I’m not convinced that it should.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐