Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, Exit West, considers the plight of the thousands of modern refugees being forced to flee their homes by internal violence that has become the new normal in so many countries around the world in recent years.  As their countries succumb to political and religious civil wars, hundreds of thousands of people flee their homelands with nothing but the clothes on their backs and whatever little they can carry with them.  Hamid focuses on two young people, Saeed and Nadia, who are forced to run for their lives before it is too late – but he gives his story one surreal little twist.

Much like Colin Whitehead did in The Underground Railroad, Hamid interprets the escape mechanism of his refugees literally.  Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was literally underground, complete with train stations and tunnels that connected certain cites in the South with those further north.  Hamid’s characters cross borders by using literal doors that magically appear in buildings all over the world.  Those crossing the thresholds of the doors have no idea what country they will magically step out into until they arrive, but the transportation is instantaneous.  And, as long as the doors remain “open,” anything is possible.  Some refugees, at least for a while, even go back and forth through the doors in order to bring supplies back to family members who prefer to remain in their home country.

Mohsin Hamid
Saeed and Nadia live in an unnamed country that is falling apart before their eyes.  The young Muslims are not married and have to be very careful about how they conduct themselves in public - and even in the privacy of their own homes – if they are to continue to fly under the radar of militant Muslims who would gladly punish them for their “sins.”  Marriage is not practical under the circumstances, and when Saeed and Nadia step through their first door out of the country, they do so single. 

That first door opens into Greece, but for many reasons, Greece will not be the last stop for Saeed and Nadia.  Native populations resent being overrun by refugees whose cultures are so different from theirs, and violent clashes with police and private citizens become more and more common as refugee populations grow in number.  The two decide to move on, finding things to be much the same whichever country they step into, and the constant search for food and medical care adds to the fear of violence that Saeed and Nadia already feel.  Before long, their relationship begins to suffer under the stress, and neither seems to have the will to fix the problem.

Although Exit West is told from the refugee point-of-view, Hamid does not paint a black or white picture of his characters based upon which side of the border from which they originate.  Not all refugees are good people; not all citizens of the receiving countries are bad.  The author chose to focus on the mindsets of his characters, and the use of magic portals to get them instantly from one country to the next allows him to do just that.  Exit West, while not exactly an eye-opener, is a moving novel that deserves to be read.


  1. I'm not sure this book would have come to my attention if not for your review. Thank you. I look forward to reading it.

  2. Happy to hear that, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It's an unusual take on today's world, one that does make some good points out the world's future. Let me know what you think of it.