Exit West  by Mohsin Hamid

A crackling good story of innocent lovers caught up in a civil war skids to a halt when it abruptly turns into magical realism.

The prose may be flat and business like but with just bare facts somehow the minimal style suits the brutality of the deteriorating quality of life of the main protagonist Nadia and her boyfriend Saeed. It could be Damascus, Bagdad, Mosel or any one of a list of war torn cities across the Middle and Near East. No names or references are given except we assume it is likely to be an Arabic country with a mixture of Western culture ruled by an authoritarian Government and an Islamic militant opposition.

When the duo finally escape the war via a people trafficker the story based in the here and now has a Narnia moment and the couple go through a door and are on a Greek island as refugees. After further interludes they open more doors eventually arriving in California via London. The story shifts into a sort of dystopian future with civil war in London, vast changes to the populations and an America transformed into refugee camps. And there are vignettes of descriptions of other lives of other refugees which are linked by theme but not always by narrative to the central story.

One of the stories of our times has been the experiences of refugees fleeing war and famine and their terrifying journeys across land and sea. Sometimes exploited and robbed, some dying en route or drowning in the Mediterranean while others find hostility or a welcome when they arrive in a safe country. None of that is here which leaves something of a vacuum and a missed opportunity.

After Saeed and Nadia leave their city in search of safety the story is confusing and fails to grip as it shifts into a bleak prophesy of a future fractured world. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West’s main strength and the core of the story is the changing relationship between the couple. Minor changes in body language and attitude towards each other are crisply observed making their courtship, life together and the tensions which eventually pull them apart the most satisfying aspect of the novel.

Harry Mottram

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