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.

Thinking About Style

Friends and family seem to like The Parched Lands and I’ve gotten some good feedback from others. I like the story well enough. And as a science teacher, I will undoubtedly continue to think about the issues that the story explores.

Looking back over it though, I think I could have done a lot better with the prose.  I was writing this story on deadline — wanting to submit before CG’s theme Expectations closed at the month’s end. In that mindset, I paid a lot more attention to story and ideas than the writing.

Many might say that’s a good thing, that style is dead (or at least unnecessary) and I should just tell the damn story. This admonishment seems to hold particularly true for science fiction. Certainly, if pressed to rank them in terms of importance, I would put story ahead of ideas ahead of style, for both reading and writing. But style does matter.

Writing is a craft that is not just about conveying information and ideas. It is also about connecting human beings. Style plays with our conscious and subconscious awareness of the words, and helps the writer to craft an overall emotional response. And there are few stronger ways to connect people and ideas than through subconscious emotions.  My opinion is that to say style doesn’t matter reveals some level ignorance or laziness. And I’m pointing my finger mostly at myself.

Sometimes simple things like adverbial phrases poke out at me:

“Mr. Daveys” Kassidi said sharply. “Something’s wrong with Amanthi!”

[…]

“No harm, no harm,” said Mr. Daveys with a reassuring smile.

And I see many places where it would have been more effective to show instead of tell:

She felt self-conscious and tried to appear casual.

More broadly, I agree with my friend Brian Powell’s feedback that having Amanthi dream of being a writer might be a bit too self-referential, and that placing a story within a story for plot purposes can come off as contrived or forced. (for the record, he had a lot of positive feedback as well).

Perhaps I will always see ways I could have improved anything in hindsight — no work of creativity is ever done, after all. I really don’t think of myself as a perfectionist (just take a look at my room or the pile of dishes in the sink), but I do always want to improve my craft. Moreover, I want to spread a greater appreciation for style, aesthetic, and humanism in the genre, both as a reader and a writer. So I think the way to frame it positively is to take lessons for future pieces where possible.

In this case, I’m proud to be published — and I want to set the bar higher for myself.