Unless I’ve completely missed it (?), it’s taken a while for the refugee crisis to trickle through in fiction. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (to be published in the UK on 2nd March) will finally change that with the love story of Nadia and Saeed fleeing an unnamed war torn country (with an uncanny resemblance to Syria or Iraq). As much as I wanted to like this book – I’m a fan of Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Raising Asia) and think this human catastrophe deserved literary attention – it left me with mixed feelings.
At first, life goes on despite sporadic fighting. Nadia and Saeed keep going to work and attend an evening class where they first meet.
It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class – in this case and evening class on corporate identity and product branding – 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…
Indeed, this is a strange thought for those of us lucky enough never to have lived in a country at war. Hamid describes life as the nozzle of the IS-like militants closes around Nadia and Saeed: music is forbidden, the neighbour is beheaded, Nadia’s apartment is bombed, Saeed’s mother is killed by shrapnel. Fleeing is, in the end, the only option. Saeed’s father decides to stay behind; for him, leaving feels like abandoning his wife. This early part of the book is convincing and moving, and by far the best.
Hamid then changes gear and the novel veers into dystopian magic realism. Entering through doors becomes the metaphor for fleeing; Saeed and Nadia’s doors take them to an unrecognisable, apocalyptic London filled to the brim with refugees, confrontations between nativists (Brits) and immigrants, blood baths in Hyde Park and Shepherd’s Bush.
I’m not sure Hamid’s decision to introduce this futuristic, apocalyptic version of Britain does the book any service. I get what he’s trying to do: show us the extreme consequences of refusing to receive and integrate refugees, of not addressing the causes of war, of not looking at humanity as one, but isn’t the reality of being an illegal immigrant in Britain bad enough? And I wonder if this could have been portrayed even more convincingly as a real experience, rather than a sci-fi dystopia? I certainly found myself feeling removed instead of pulled in by the turn this story took.
Adding to that is Hamid’s detached writing style, which worked well in How to Get Filthy Rich in Raising Asia but which here somehow just served to disengage me from Nadia and Saeed and their love story.
I’d love to hear what other readers think about this book, as I suspect opinions will be divided.
Thank you to Penguin Books/Hamish Hamilton for providing me with a review copy through NetGalley.
Exit West is published by Penguin Books/Hamish Hamilton, 240 pages.