Exit West by Mohsin Hamid


New sub-genre alert: refugee-magic-realism.

Apart from a love story, I didn’t really know what to expect from Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.

Saeed and Nadia flee their unnamed, on-the-brink-of-war country to build a new life. Their escape is not by treacherous sea-crossing or a midnight hike – instead, they step through a magical door (at great cost), that opens in another country. It’s a bit like playing pick-a-box because Saeed and Nadia don’t know what’s behind each door, but the first takes them to a refugee camp on a Greek island and the story unfolds from there.

In Exit West, Hamid demonstrates that the refugee experience is universally the same – that is, horrifyingly the same. Nadia and Saeed’s story is interspersed with short passages about other refugees. The stories are similar – finding shelter; food and water; and feeling safe is the priority, regardless of where you land. Hamid also explores the issues around leaving family and friends in the home country, knowing it’s likely to be forever.

Hamid’s staccato style and lack of dialogue (pages and pages of stark, choppy sentences) created a sense of tension but at the cost of investing emotionally with Saeed and Nadia. I understood the urgency of their situation but I didn’t feel it. I understood the horrors of what they were seeing but felt as equally detached as the cool narrator. Saeed’s mother dies while looking for a lost earring in her car – “…a stray heavy-calibre round passing through the windscreen … and taking with it a quarter of her head”. And –

“In times of violence, there is always that first acquaintance or intimate of ours, who, when they are touched, makes what had seemed like a bad dream suddenly, eviscerating real. For Nadia, this person was her cousin … who, along with eighty-five others, was blown by a truck bomb to bits, literally to bits, the largest of which, in Nadia’s cousin’s case, were a head and two-thirds of an arm.”

While there were some interesting themes in this book, I felt they were distorted by the magic realism and dystopian elements of the book.

2/5 I’m breaking up with magic realism.

I received my copy of Exit West from the publisher, Hamish Hamilton, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.






23 responses

    • A quick scan of Goodreads suggests the style of Exit West may be a departure from that in his other novels…? Either way, the style was distinct but not for me.

  1. I don’t mind magic realism, but I think with such a serious topical issue it has to extend understanding and empathy rather than create a feeling of being a step removed. It sounds like the balance here wasn’t quite right.

  2. It seems as if Hamid really likes to take stylistic risks. It worked for some degree, for me, in How to Get Rich, but this one sounds like a stretch. I think I’ll give it a pass and appreciate your opinion!

    • I appreciate the style he used – it is distinct and I read one review (NYT perhaps??) where the reviewer loved it. I guess dividing opinion is the risk you take when you choose a distinct style.

  3. I really enjoyed his previous books so I ordered this earlier today BEFORE I read your comments. Magic realism isn’t really my thing at any time – but having ordered it I guess I’m stuck with it! Though it might remain buried in ‘the pile’ for longer than it might otherwise have done!

    • I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts Col, particularly how it compares to his other books. It’s a slim book and not taxing reading, so you should be able to rip through it!

  4. I have this on my TBR pile – it’s slimness appeals right now!

    I wonder if the cool step back approach to the emotion was a deliberate choice by the author to avoid being accused of tugging at heart strings or going for the bleeding heart (hate that phrase, but you know what I mean I hope) angle.

    Some topics can be just so heavy with emotion, that the only way to write it is to remove it altogether?

    However it sounds like it didn’t work for you at all. Magic realism can be off putting; I tend to avoid it too…oh well, I’ll see how I go with it.

    • I think you’re right although I suspect the style choice was a deliberate means of highlighting particular elements of the story (as opposed to down-playing). Will be keen to hear your thoughts when you read it.

  5. I’m sorry to hear of your split from magic realism. MR and I haven’t been going out that long; at this early stage our relationship everything seems okay. Your experience has shown me that I may need to be a little more on guard.

  6. There’s just something about this one that makes me want to give it a shot. It doesn’t sound like anything I normally read but I’m intrigued. Magical realism and dystopian does certainly sound like a strange combination so I’ll try to lower my expectations. 🙂

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  11. Hello Kate,
    In this book, the fantasy of stepping through an open door to freedom seemed out of place when most of the book is realistic. However, I enjoyed the originality of the story, and thought it ended on quite a hopeful note, and the book has earned quite a few literary awards.
    Thanks for your review, Kate.

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