Another great pick from my Internations bookclub, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West left me with seriously mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I love books that make me question my own paradigms and face my short comings, and this book has definitely scored high points in this category. I also enjoyed the way the author escapes from the commonplace formula of boy meets girl – boy falls in love with girl – they overcome difficulties of their own doing and live happily ever after. Nothing of the sort in this book. It feels real and shows how, in real life, love does not conquer all, but people grow and mature and let circumstances change them, and how all of that is not a bad thing.
On the other hand, I just didn’t like the style. The poetic prose, the long-winded tangents that paint beautiful pictures but do nothing to move the story along, all the markers that I think may turn it into literary fiction are just not my cup of tea. It is deliberate in an attempt to create foreshadowing and a mysterious atmosphere, but for me it all just feels like unnecessary clutter. Even the unexplained doors that bend space, which mark the novel as magical realism, for me just felt like a cop out. I am not a fan of magical realism to start with, but I felt like it would have made the story much harder to write if the author had to tackle the difficulties of the journey, and a magical door that takes you places was just the easy way out.
I don’t know – my attention kept wandering and I would have to come back and go over the same passages again and again because at some point I just wasn’t registering what was happening.
But if I could just remove my annoyance at these stylistic choices, the book was superb. It brings out subjects that anyone who hasn’t lived through war – civil or otherwise – rarely stops to consider, such as the fact that life goes on in the face of conflict, when 90% of the population is really not involved in the fighting but needs to learn to navigate it, and continue going to work, and attending night classes, and grocery shopping while bombs are going off until their fragile realities become unsustainable and normal life cannot possibly continue.
We get to see two individuals who are attracted to each other, though clearly not suitable for one another get thrown together and cling to that attraction in an attempt to block out the fact that their world was imploding around them. We can see that attraction turning into love under the pressure of circumstances beyond their control in a way that it might not have given different variables. We can see how hardships and duress shaped character growth and strenghted the same characteristics that made incompatible to begin with. And we see the beautiful struggle between the people they want to be and the people they are, and how they need to accept that maybe clinging to this morphed love is not the answer.
In the end, I think this is a wonderful love story, which brings forth important issues. I just wish I was a bigger fan of flowery prose, so I could have really enjoyed it.