Exit West

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, $32.99

Reviewed by Heather O’Connor

Many of you will have read The Reluctant Fundamentalist (or seen the film), an earlier work of the author. In Exit West, he brings a really interesting take on the refugee experience, writing with a mix of stark reality and a touch of magical realism which you don’t expect in books dealing with displacement and incredible hardship.

You don’t know the identity of the city about which he writes, but it is readily recognisable as a site of civil war, destruction, displacement, death and despair – we see it every night on TV news programs. The central characters are a young couple who meet and fall in love amid the chaos. They agonise about the decision to flee the city, leaving behind family and friends. Their escape is through a series of magical windows, the first of which lands them in Greece. From there, they make their way to London, only to face a new series of challenges, finding housing and jobs and fitting in with the wave of refugees who preceded them.

This book provides a different focus on the refugee experience; it explains why people leave their homes, and what they face when (or if) they arrive at their final destination. Often this includes barriers which appear almost insurmountable for individuals, and explains why refugees naturally gravitate to communities of fellow displaced countrymen and women for survival and support. A central theme of the book is the tension which arises when desperate people see no alternative but to leave their homes, yet find little or no welcome at the end of their truly awful journeys.

The book is an important contribution to what will remain a world-wide problem for decades. The element of magical realism perhaps reminds us that in a world where distance is collapsing, “windows” will open through which desperate people will escape.