Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
There are at least a few reasons why this book is not quite as good as it could be. As seems to be a pattern with the author’s books (as someone who has read three of them now, this one the second), the author is frustrating vague about the setting of his story and the identity of his main characters. He seems to want his intended audience to see in these characters a sort of everyman and everywoman who they can identify with, but when the wish fulfillment aspect of this refugee story involves the apparent destruction of the United States and the spread of anti-immigrant violence throughout many parts of the world, with an unsettling compromise made in lieu of a battle to death, he does not appear to realize that adding some level of realism may have made the novel more enjoyable to those who had no chance of seeing themselves in the characters here. To be sure, to those born in countries dealing with Islamist insurgencies that threaten the lives of those who live in opposition to their ways and inspire people to break immigration laws to seek a better future might find much to relate to here, but that is hopefully not a large audience of readers.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and it deals with a familiar subject for the author’s novels, namely the troubled relationship between Islam and civilization and other civilizations. In this novel we see the forced intimacy that a young man and a young woman feel as their early attempts to make out and get to know each other are done in the midst of a successful overthrow of a secularist nation by a radical Muslim rebellion, leading the two to avoid certain death for their non-traditional ways through various illegal immigration efforts that lead them to refugee status in the Greek Aegean islands and then in London, where they become part of a massive conflict between nativists and immigrants. The author explores how the forced intimacy of love in war does not lead to lasting love and the man and woman leave each other and do not get together again for decades, until they are able to see themselves as friends and appreciate the lives they have made for themselves away from their homeland. The novel has a bittersweet feel to it, which seems to be the author’s general metier.
Several novels into a generally successful career, it appears that the author knows what kind of material he wants to write and has generally stuck to a fairly small and consistent set of guiding principles and approaches. The author likes writing about formally anonymous people in formally anonymous places so as to better keep the vagueness at the maximum. Likewise, he seems to be consistently interested in writing about dysfunctional or broken relationships between generations and between men and women. Don’t read his books expecting happy relationships that succeed despite life’s struggles, or for truly happy endings. No book that includes the destruction of the United States as part of its ending is going to be an entirely happy book, at least by the lights of this reader. The author’s fondness for cynicism, struggles with the meaning of Islam and the relationship of Muslims and their home countries and governments and societies as well as with the West comes through here, and that cynicism can sometimes overwhelm the author’s better motives as a writer and can occasionally sour the reader on his otherwise interesting plots. There is still something in here worth appreciating, but the author could have gone about it better.