Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

With a full-time job, a husband, and a five year-old, most of my reading gets done on my breaks at work, or maybe in 20 minutes chunks before I fall asleep.  I hardly ever read for more than an hour at one time – either sleep or my short attention span win out.  So it’s a BIG DEAL for me to say that I read most of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (231 pages) in one sitting.  It was a Friday night, and I just felt like devoting my night (after my son fell asleep) to reading.  I did not want to put it down.  I was riveted by the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people falling in love in the midst of an unnamed Middle Eastern city crumbling into sectarian violence.

9780735212176They meet in class when the city had only experienced “some shootings and the odd car bombing.”  They have coffee in the cafeteria, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they talk and get to know one another a bit as any young couple might do.  And then more and more frightening and violent things begin to happen, and then things start to go all to hell, and they are thrown into a much more intimate relationship at a faster pace than they probably would have experienced otherwise.

But then a way out emerges:

Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe…

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I won’t reveal more about the doors. That said, this not a book for everyone.  Lately I’ve read some of those Top Ten Tuesday lists about things that turn people off as readers, and magical realism is a popular turn-off. My tolerance for “weirdness” in books has only increased as I’ve gotten older, so I like magical realism, if it serves the story.  For me, the magical doors to more stable European and American cities worked.  I went with the device as a way to move the narrative along and as an ironic commentary on how often treacherous and deadly real-life migration is.  I ve read that sometimes magical realism makes a reader feel removed from the characters, but I didn’t feel this way at all.  I was fully immersed in Nadia and Saeed’s plight as they tried to find a place to be and tried to navigate complicated emotions in such a new and fragile relationship.

And the writing – my goodness!  It moved me.  There is something essentially human in Mr. Hamid’s writing that touched my heart.  This passage about Saeed’s prayers especially spoke to me:

“…he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other was.  When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we all carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another…”

Because I was moved, because I was transported, I am confident that Exit West will be on my year-end Top Ten list.  I now want to read all of his books with a new sense of urgency.

You can read a great interview with Mr. Hamid (and you should!) from the New York Times here.

Do you have plans to read Exit West?  How do you feel about magical realism or weirdness in books?  What was the last book you read in one (or two) sitting(s)?

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25 thoughts on “Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

  1. Wow, what a wonderful review! I’ve requested a copy from the library, and can’t wait to get my hands on it. I’ve heard really great things about it so far. Oh, and I think magical realism is wonderful. A few years ago, I wasn’t too keen on it, but I’ve been trying to read outside my comfort zone, and I’ve come to really love it.

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  2. I’ve been in two minds about this book, having read wildly divergent reviews. I think I might start with one of his more traditional books, like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I have in a box somewhere. I am usually switching between 10-15 print and e-books at a time, so I rarely sit with one book for very long at once. However, if I think back to the last two books that I read huge chunks of at a time — Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — they were both very strange and magical! So maybe there is something to be said for magic realism and/or fantasy dragging you in and holding your attention.

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    1. Rebecca, I’ve read some more negative reviews of this on Goodreads too. I think some expressed that they couldn’t connect with the characters. This wasn’t a problem for me! 🙂 I don’t know, maybe I was just in the right mood to be swept away! I’d like to read his other books too – I look forward to your thoughts when you share them!

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  3. I know two of his books, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia which I listened to twice (it took me completely by surprise and even though I do generally prefer the print to audio versions, this one in audio felt very appropriate – same with The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – because each story took me someplace I didn’t expect to go, and the delivery by the reader was another avenue into that strange place). However, I feel MH is like Meryl Streep is with acting; I lose track of him behind the story (which is an awesome thing) so I didn’t even properly note that he had something new and am now doubly grateful for the nudge towards it. So glad to hear that it swept you away so thoroughly and, wow, I love those quotes. Beautiful!

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  4. I’m waiting for this to come into my local library and your review has made me even more eager to read it. I’m a fan of magic realism, especially in a topical kind of story. I was pleasantly surprised when it cropped up in Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women in amongst more down-to-earth stories, and I love Angela Carter so magical realism is my kind of weird. The quotes you’ve picked out here sound amazing too; good choices!

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  5. This sounds amazing! As the mother of 6 yr old twins I can empathise with your reading habits. It’s hard to find time and it takes a special book to pull you in. Sounds like you found it! That quote about loss is beautiful.

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  6. I’m in a strange place where I’m gun-shy about magic realism, but I constantly say that I adore weirdness in books. I can’t say where the line is! I think it’s about how much of the book is given over to the weirdness, and how much it depends on the weirdness as the central point of interest. Does that make any sense? I’ve been planning to read Exit West, though, so I’m excited you liked it!

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  7. The quotes from this book sound much better to me than your other review that I just read! The way the violence gets worse and worse reminds me of Satrapi’s memoir, Persepolis; the speaker (Satrapi as a girl) gets more and more aware that protesting isn’t fun and that death is real the more violence breaks out near her home.

    As for magical realism, I think most people hate it because some authors assume readers will love the magical moment because it’s “different,” but it really does have to be done so, so, well to avoid seeming gimmicky. Of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the king of magical realism, but Salman Rushdie and Irvine Welsh do it well, too (I know, two super-different examples).

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  8. This. Book. Sounds. AWESOME!!! I adore magical realism, and I feel like it’s constantly poo-poo’d upon. But it’s so much fun! I love the idea of people accepting magic and it being REAL. The Night Circus is one of my all-time favorite novels.

    This has been added to my TBR. Look what you’ve done, increasing my TBR again! Tsk. 😉

    Do you think the violence ever gets graphic in this novel? Is that something I should watch out for?

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  9. Fantastic review Laila!!! I’ve been hearing really good things about this book. I’m also not put off my magic realism (for the most part) or weirdness…. I am a fan of the odd. I am definitely going to be putting this one on the TBR for sure now!

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  10. I am glad it was such a positive read for you. I too liked some of the sentences and the premise and I sympathized with the characters, though I did feel more distanced to the characters b/c of the narration and writing. I wanted to get more into than I did. Still an interesting read. Cheers.

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