Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Writing: 5+ Characters: 4 Plot: 4

A brilliant, insightful, distillation of the experience of two individuals who go from a life which appears “normal” to one of upheaval, exposure to extremism, and displacement. This is the story of Nadia and Saaed – two people who meet and become a couple as civil war first threatens and then engulfs the city in which they live. As they leave their country and become migrant refugees, we watch the evolution of their relationship with themselves and each other through the eyes of the omniscient (and prescient) narrator.

There are touches of parable where “magic” doors to other locales open, are guarded, or are destroyed – a nice abstraction of the diverse processes people use to enter the “doorways” into other countries, both welcoming and not. We never learn the name of the city or country in which they start – we don’t need to – this is an allegory for all such journeys. Nor do we ever learn the names of any other characters. They are referenced solely by labels that relate them to Saeed and Nadia: “Saeed’s father”, “a musician”, “the girl on Mykonos”. In this way we are forced to focus on these events solely from the perceptions of and impact on these individuals.

The writing is some of the best I’ve seen – one of those books in which each sentence is a gem, both in terms of beauty and pithy insight into human nature and behavior. While the story and environs are clearly disturbing, the prose is neither incendiary nor manipulative, providing a simple, yet detailed documentation of how these experiences shape Nadia, Saeed, and the relationship between them. In this way it reminded me of Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” which, as its name suggests, is about how people survive, not about the horrors inflicted on them.

I found my stereotypes challenged constantly in loud, messy and surprising ways. I watched assumptions I didn’t know I had disappear as I read. Most of our exposure to situations like this are through news services that focus on major, traumatic events – while this story let me connect to people I could identify with while they adaptated to unplanned and unpleasant circumstances. A mind-twisting (for me) example: Saeed’s father thinks he was selfish to pursue a life of teaching, research, and altruism as he would have been in a position to help his family to escape if he had pursued only wealth. I have never had to think about the acquisition of wealth from that perspective.

This book has all the characteristics I crave in reading: excellent writing, deep character insight, penetrating commentary of the nature of humanity, and relevant subject matter (also NOT depressing). Top recommendation!

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