I first read this back in 2018 and was part of my Everybody Reads Reading Challenge. Here’s the review…
I originally gave this a lower review because I thought it was rather depressing. But the more I thought about it and after attending a book club to discuss it, I changed my mind which just goes to show that sometimes you need to let the words sink in and not always go off your first reaction.
This wasn’t what I was expecting. The magical element caught me off guard and I think ultimately added something to it. It probably made the story more effective had it just been a straight out narrative tackling the topical issues of migration and refugees.
Although a short book, it’s the kind that makes you ponder after reading a few pages.
The mini stories within Saeed and Nadia’s were curious asides often through provoking. Lots of the book club members enjoyed them too. They found many passages to highlight and bookmark and wanted to share.
One of my favorite passages: “Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with held high of what their generation had done.”
Originally, I thought the book to be too depressing but at the end I think it was ultimately hopeful. That despite everything- the inevitability of change and the good and bad that arises from it, the uncertainty of things- we can still hope for a better future, of happier days.
I was fortunate enough to see Mohsin Hamid speak at the culminating event for Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads program. The library once again partnered with the wonderful nonprofit organization Literary Arts to invite the author speak at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Not only was the beautiful space filled with book lovers and hundreds of high school students but also a Literary Arts volunteer of over 30 years and who was celebrating her 90th birthday that evening!
Mohsin Hamid started out talking about himself and how Exit West was sort of an autobiographical memoir in terms of places he’s lived in and visited. I was able to relate to his story of moving from one country to another, exchanging one culture for another.
He then talked about the significance of the black doors in the novel- and how our phones are similar to them- and the importance of names.
Talking about the craft of writing, he mentioned how finding the right form was crucial to tell the story in the best way possible and he likened his approach in the story’s form of Exit West to children’s literature. (He would shout out children’s literature a couple times throughout the presentation with Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar as some of the books he mentioned. He would also say that each book is in their own way migration stories.) For language, he said he was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s style- not just in the messages he was trying to convey but the way his words would take the person along for a ride to an ending that seemed inevitable even when it may have been in unexpected.
He also the impermanence of first love- and life in general- and the otherness in all us. He said that transcendental love- a love that is not possessive but is for others- is what is needed to create an optimistic future.
The Q&A portion elicited some great questions ranging from what weird food combinations he enjoyed to some of his favorite books. He ended by giving his advice to aspiring writers by saying, “You can find everything you need to know about writing at the library.”