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.