‘In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.’
That opening line tells you what to expect for the remainder of ‘Exit West.’ The city is unnamed – it stands for any city caught up in the Syrian conflict. Even the central characters, Saeed and Nadia, feel like representatives of the ‘migrant crisis’ (I finished the book without a clear mental image of either).
If you think that is a good opening line, you will probably appreciate what comes after it. I didn’t, in either case.
Hamid’s prose style is well-advertised too. Elongated sentences (many of them paragraph-length). Repeated implication of things by negatives – ‘not yet at war…did not speak to her’ – an increasingly irritating habit. And, for this reviewer, one of the biggest distraction from this novel’s other qualities: a reflexive use of foreshadowing, particularly in the first hundred pages.
After a while, this start to feel like Hamid trying to cover-up his failure to establish a mood of growing danger through other means (event, dialogue, character). Enough with the-man-who-would-be-hung-a-month-later and the-street-which-would-be-rubble. Get to it.
Hamid has cited Hemingway among his formative influences. Like Hemingway, he hints, alludes, and implies a lot.
Unlike Hemingway as his best, however, there are no iceburgs beneath the surface here because Saeed and Nadia are not satisfyingly rounded characters. They are good people trying to be good. That’s fine. But I would rather be given a full, flawed refugee character to sympathise with in spite of their flaws.
To its credit, the story does not quite follow the trajectory I was expecting. Hamid captures the ebb and flow of Saeed and Nadia’s romantic feelings – essentially revealing that how we feel about those we love is always dependent on the circumstances in which we know them, though we like to imagine otherwise – with tenderness and restraint. Here, the direct style pays dividends in describing a ‘double-exile’ undergone by refugees.
‘They rarely touched, and her desire to be touched by him, long subsided, did not flicker back into flame. It seemed to Nadia that something had gone quiet inside her. She spoke to him, but her words were muffled to her own ears.’
You may have sensed that ‘Exit West’ is not my Booker pick. I would recommend instead Kamila Shamshie’s long listed ‘Home Fire’, a superior (still flawed) re-imagining of Antigone in the era of IS.