Review of “Exit West”, by Mohsin Hamid

Rating: 3/5 stars.

When Saeed and Nadia finally had coffee together in the cafeteria, which happened the following week, after the very next session of their class, Saaed asked her about her conservative and virtually all-concealing black rode.

“If you don’t pray,” he said, lowering his voice, “why do you wear it?”

They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screen-down between them, like the weapons of desperados at parley.

She smiled. Took a sip. And spoke, the lower half of her face obscured by her cup.

“So men don’t fuck with me,” she said.

The quote above appears at the end of Chapter One, and sums up the essence of what I like about the novel. It does equally well as an example of what turns me off as well.

I love that the setting and characters give me a unique and interesting perspective on the world, one which I seldom have access to. They surprised me, and confronted me with assumptions and prejudices that I wasn’t aware I harbored, even considering myself fairly open-minded and educated about the world. In this way, Exit West demonstrates to me that there simply aren’t enough diverse voices from a Middle Eastern lens that are making it into the mainstream consciousness, leading to a limited set of narratives from which we draw our judgments and conclusions about its culture and diaspora. I appreciate that this novel expands that perspective. Further, the characters are likeable and I immediately sympathized with their position, foibles, and desires.

With such strengths, it might seem odd that I am giving a rating of 3/5 stars. The fatal flow in the novel is this: despite the unique perspective and sympathetic characters, it was hard for me to feel engaged with the story itself. The tone, while sometimes genuinely funny and surprising, often just comes off as smug and cheeky to me. The style is literary and detached; even violent deaths are described matter-of-factly, and it feels like it takes a very long time for things to happen. Given the violence and suffering of the backdrop of civil war, I found myself craving something more direct, clear, and raw to bring it home emotionally.

That, or perhaps I’m just not literary enough to appreciate the excellently crafted prose when the plot feels understated and beneath the surface… I’m no pulp reader — lack of character depth and hacked-together stocked plots do really annoy me. I do want to think when I read, but in the sense that I want to learn something new, maybe have my mind blown, and perhaps be inspired. I don’t want to be craving more connection while applauding politely, as artisan turns of phrase pirouette on by.

Overall, I’m glad this novel exists, and I don’t think I wasted my time reading it… but you won’t find me singing it’s praises or strongly recommending it to friends.