Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Literary Fiction, Magical Realism
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
So you can understand where my (unpopular) opinion is coming from with Exit West...
My favourite genre is Fantasy/Sci-Fi. My next favourites are Historical and Literary (not romance versions of these genres).
So going into Exit West I was really hoping to experience a literary story about refugees with an interesting spin to it. The doors to random places in the world is a great idea when it comes to refugees just being plopped down somewhere random. It's likely what most countries refugee admittance systems feels like right now to many.
Certainly small amounts of fantasy/sci-fi can be added into a story that is very realistic and come out as superb. Station Eleven is always one of my favourite examples of this. I also think of The Alchemist and Life of Pi. Unfortunately Mohsin Hamid missed the mark for me on this.
Pick a Genre..?
When Hamid starts off the story it's clear that this is a refugee story that is all too true (and sad) for so many. The first 1/3 or so of the book has no magical elements in it and only rumours of these 'doors' that allow folks to escape. It's what I would expect from a book classified like this one. Raw, scary and intense bombing which results in many emotions for our lead characters.
Then our 2 lead characters go through a door and it's as though the story of 'escaping' Syria wasn't worth telling or Hamid doesn't want to bother with it. Instead he wants to focus on what it's like trying to fit into the 'new' country they have been put down in. This seemed a bit odd to me...
Feels too passive
I work with a lady who was 7 years old when her family fled Vietnam during the war to a refugee camp. They were put on a list, waiting to hear what country they would go to. She said it was agonizing to wait in the worsts conditions she's seen in her life. Luckily they were only there about 10 months before being cleared to come to Canada. I don't do her story justice at all, as the real meat of it and the grief she went through is so poignant I wouldn't want to tell it on her behalf. The biggest challenge wasn't learning English or immersing themselves in Canadian culture. Instead it was the actual night they fled on a small boat in pitch dark to arrive at a camp that was no better than a hole in the mud with a canvas roof.
Her story has always made me appreciate that it's not the shock of a new life that lingers with many but instead the scarring experience of leaving everything behind. By taking away most of the fleeing feeling in Exit West I think Hamid is taking away a critical part of any refugee story. It just doesn't feel right. It's too passive and (for me) doesn't do any one refugee's fleeing story justice.
Relationships & Characters
The focus of the story is actually our lead couple and their emotional experience towards each other during this time of strife. Unfortunately our lead folks were very flat and boring to me. I never felt like I truly knew or understood either of them. I had no emotional connection and at times felt I'd rather read the larger stories from the random 'one-off' people that Hamid writes about than actually read about our leading characters.
That is one thing I really enjoyed was the 1-2 page snippets of others living in this same world alongside our lead couple. Unfortunately I felt more connected to many of these people than to our leading ones.
Exit West misses the mark for me. It's too random and not real enough; and frankly boring. The magical doors are used as an excuse (in my opinion) to downplay the fleeing that refugees do and this just feels wrong to me. It takes away some of the fear and 'excitement', as well as downplays what is a critical part of any refugee story. I get that maybe Hamid is trying not to sensationalize the fear but I think it was taken too far and just made the story dull as our characters move from door to door.
I'd have rather read a truer account of a refugee's experience or read a more fantastical story. The attempt to bring a small amount of magic into this story is a flop.
I would recommend you pick-up a real refugee story or read a book more realistic in some of these war-torn and abused countries instead of reading Exit West. Having read a lot of WWII fiction I'm now looking towards books like Kite Runner (which I have not read yet) where they (seem to) have a more genuine look at more recent refugee situations. I recommend you also do the same and pass over Exit West.