Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a strange read and one that I’m not sure worked, at least for me. Scanning through Goodreads, there’s a lot people in love with this book and I think I might be in the minority. To be fair, I always have a hard time with poetry.
Yes, I know this book isn’t told in poetry. But, with it’s long form, run-on sentences it has a lilting way about it. After a while, I got used to the rhythm, but it also means I drifted in and out of the actual story.
The story is about two people, stuck in their city of war, looking for a way out. At first, it seems like finding each other might be enough, but the escalating violence of their home forces their hands. The first half of the book, with our two protagonists meeting and getting to know each other, is the strongest. Not just in characterization, but also in the way the violence and horrors of the city are explained, almost nonchalantly. Characters who are introduced or are a very small part are killed off, sometimes weeks after we meet them and it’s always because the city they live in is out of their hands. This is where the book, as message about accepting refugees feels most effective. Stepping into the shoes, if even for a moment, of someone living in fear and danger, who has to just “accept” the war raging around them, is jarring. When a certain character, who is very important to our protagonists, is killed, it’s not while doing something important or meaningful. They’re killed by stray bullets, doing something mundane as searching a glove compartment for a lost earring.
The second half, however, lost my interest. The story seems to lose focus, mainly in terms of plotting. The characters lose a lot of initiative once they escape their city only to find themselves stuck in a new, temporary home. I will admit, it does show the impact of what refugee life can do to a relationship, even one with people who need each other to survive. Maybe that was the point, testing the reader’s patience along with the characters’. Both of us keep waiting for the situation to change, either for better or worse, and when nothing happens, we start acting nasty to each other.
The book ends on a bittersweet note that falls in line with the rest of the book. Well told, interesting, but fluid and not as focused as I like. The characters, like the book, drift away and, for me at least, I was ready for the book to simply call it a day.
As I tried to point out, this book didn’t work a hundred percent of the time for me. Moments reminded me of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, but where that book had its hooks in me and never let go, Exit West had me and then threw me back into the water. The run-on sentence-paragraphs, while a style that can work in parts, gets tired as the book goes one, with paragraphs feeling exhausting by the end.
I would suggest this book though, as its a great example of book forcing us to step into shoes we wouldn’t want to wear. As a glimpse into a life most of us can’t and, hopefully, will never have to relate to, it’s effective. As a narrative, not so much.