Cover Image: Exit West

Exit West

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Member Reviews

This was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it. thanks for letting me have an advance copy. I'm new to this author.
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This story is so David Mitchell-like. It has love, war, politics, fantasy. Besides the main story, there are little moments somewhere else in a world, without hints, how those moments are connected to the main story - until all is revealed. 
In a way, it’s a story about the refugee problem in Europe, seen through fantasy. Instead of rubber floats the refugees use doors that take them everywhere else in the world. There are more doors than one, they are all over, and they can open in unexpected places and close any minute. The doors aren't used only by refugees, anyone can travel if they find the door, and they can come back, it’s not one way and one time thing.

In a way, it’s a love story, but it’s also a refugee drama, and also fantasy about doors for travelling all over the world. This fantastical, but emotional story is a bit confusing but very fascinating.

Good reading!!
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I disliked this book - which I was surprised by as I enjoyed other works by this author, but there was something stilted about this one...I kept waiting for it to warm on me and it didn't. I prefer not to give negative reviews unless I can help it, and so I am only providing feedback here.
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3.5 stars in fact
Exit West is not just a successful example of how to use speculative fiction to talk about the present (about the refugee crisis, specifically) but it’s also the story of the journey and the relationship of Saeed and Nadia, a young Muslim couple who escapes from their unnamed country using the “magical” doors that, without any logical explanation, have started appearing in different parts of the world linking countries at random. Fortunately, their long journey through different doors, with stopovers in Mykonos and London and ending in San Francisco, is not just an excuse to show problems refugees and countries taking them in must face, although this is an essential, well-nuanced and interesting part of the plot; we’ll also be witnesses of how Saeed and Nadia will deeply change along their journey and how their bittersweet love story evolves.  And all this in just around 200 pages. Not bad at all.
I'll probably include it in my next recommended readings post.
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Set in an unnamed but presumably Middle Eastern city, Exit West tells the tale of Nadia and Saeed – two refugees who escape westward through ‘doors’ – literal doorways that open up to other locations across the world.
Despite this element of science fiction, the story conveyed feels real and natural, and while the 'doors' offer major facilitation for the plot, they are almost incidental to the very real story of two displaced young people who are just trying to survive, together. The tale of the downfall of a city, the relationship between two lovers and their attempts to make a home elsewhere is told frankly, with acerbic wit.The narrative style is wonderfully clever, with the narrator almost feeling like a character in himself, commenting on and intruding into the lives of the characters. It feels like a universal story, and one which will resonate with many people who have been displaced and are struggling to make a new life. 

For such a short story it beautifully captures nuanced characters and a relationship which was real and poignant. Nadia was a modern day Muslim and a feminist, though her modesty comes from her feminist beliefs in an ironic twist. Saeed is a man struggling with his identity, as a man and of his nationality, a notably common phenomenon. The two characters are very different, one fiercely independent, the other quietly contemplative, but but they complement each other beautifully. 

The book covers multiple different struggles with identity, from gender, to religious, to nationality and more. It explores different relationships, not only been the two lovers, but also between parents and children. The book certainly packs a lot into a small number of pages but that's what also makes it so incredible - that is can capture so much feeling so concisely. This book is an absolute must read for the modern day.
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Exit West is a must-read novel which resists the tendency to closure and border-raising of contemporary society. In such dark times, the idea of doors opening up randomly to various parts of the world, of people crossing borders, meeting up and challenging the system is dramatically simple and powerful at the same time.
The writing is crisp and clear, with no excessive adornment, and it goes directly to the heart of things.
For readers who enjoyed speculative novels live The Undergroung Railroad.
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We are so accustomed to thinking in terms of national identity and borders between countries it’s interesting to wonder how we’d see each other if these things became truly porous. That seems to be the mission of Mohsin Hamid’s extremely thoughtful and compelling novel “Exit West.” It’s an exercise in what would happen if the barrier between one country and another were no longer a passport control line, but simply a door that opens from a residence in one country to a residence in another country. In this story these portals between nations appear with increasing frequently. It turns strangers around the world into literal neighbours and frees passage for thousands of refugees who want to build a life for themselves elsewhere. It’s a stroke of imaginative daring similar to what Colson Whitehead brilliantly achieved in his novel “The Underground Railroad” where this fantastical plot device makes us re-conceptualize our standard sense of reality and allows wild possibilities within the story. But this is also very much a novel about love, the way it changes over time as we change and how different environments can radically alter our relationships. 

One of the most striking things about this story is that only two characters are named. These are Nadia and Saeed, the couple whose journey we follow throughout the novel. The author is very aware of how a name doesn’t just signify a person, but also often denotes a particular economic status, religious background, cultural tradition and global region. So, while the few different countries they magically enter are named, their war-torn city of origin is not. By withholding names from this place and the many people introduced in the story Hamid demonstrates a second way of making us reconsider our preconceived notions. The great danger with performing these feats of storytelling is that the novel becomes more about the concepts built into the author’s structure and less about the reader’s emotional connection to the story. 

While the structure and Hamid’s occasionally laboured sentence structure was jarring at first, I found myself drawn into the romantic trajectory of Nadia and Saeed’s lives together. They are an interesting pair where Nadia is a biker keen on partaking in recreational drugs, but continuously wears traditional black robes wherever they go despite being non-religious. This produces an interesting reaction from people, particularly later on in the novel where some assume her clothing means she’s living under oppressive men when really it’s her choice. Saeed has a more conservative nature and struggles with the question of faith, but I found myself really connecting to him since his most longed-for dream is to visit the deserts of Chile to stargaze in their clear skies – something I myself have dreamed about since seeing the powerful documentary ‘Nostalgia for the Light.’ 

Hamid depicts the ebb and flow of this couple’s strong relationship through a long period of time. It felt similar in some ways to Alain de Botton’s recent novel ‘The Course of Love’ in how these stories expose all the gritty reality of long term relationships. At times this style of showing the different stages of love through time can get too close to an intellectual exercise. But Hamid introduces an interesting element where he considers the way our environments impact our relationships. He describes how “personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” So while Nadia and Saeed naturally change as they age their ideas and desires also alter with the different places they come to live in when stepping through portals into other countries. Naturally, these changes also come to affect their relationship in dramatic ways. 

Another striking thing this novel does is powerfully represent a city being overwhelmed and held under the sway of a new extremist order. The nameless city Nadia and Saeed grew up in is slowly overtaken by insurgents and the author captures so well the sense in how normality is gradually altered: “War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes.” This felt very realistic in how they witness people with certain names that are associated with a particular denomination being hunted down and paranoia becomes rife where everyone is aware of being monitored (both by neighbours and a series of drones which police the city.) The powerful 2014 film ‘Timbuktu’ gives a similar powerful sense of what it’s like to live somewhere which becomes overwhelmed by strict new ideologies that are rigidly enforced and significantly alter or destroy the day to day lives of ordinary people. The way Hamid shows this in his novel raises poignant questions about how different people react in tense periods of social and political upheaval. 

While the situations and global changes that the author imagines in this novel are radically destabilizing, something I really admired about it was the level of optimism that Hamid maintains. Often when we think about the larger issues this story raises we can only conceive of society collapsing or destroying itself. Yet, Hamid offers another point of view stating how “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.” This is a story which allows for possibilities that are hard to imagine when facing the grimness of the news every day. Obviously immigration is a touchy political subject, but I admire the way “Exit West” challenges us to think about this from different angles and makes us reconsider them through a particular couple’s dramatic journey.
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Thank you so much for allowing me to review Exit West. I have featured it in my July Reading Wrap Up and it has also previously been featured in a haul video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPQ7_sSkVf0
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Exit West is Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid's fourth novel and the first one I've read. It is on the Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist. When I read about it earlier in the year, I decided this would the one where I would get on board, and with its themes of refugees fleeing war and the challenges of emigration, it seemed pertinent.

It is a story of a young couple Nadia and Saeed who meet in their unnamed home country, which felt to me while reading as if I were reading about Syria, just before the conflict in their country escalates. They meet in the classroom, he with his "studiously maintained stubble", she in"flowing black robe". She brushes off his invitation to have coffee initially, eventually agreeing and slowly they develop a friendship, a relationship.

Interspersed with their narrative are brief snapshots of lives being lived at that moment elsewhere - an incident between and man and a woman happening in Australia, a man nursing his Irish whiskey drink in Tokyo. To be honest, I didn't get what these intrusions into the story were about - perhaps just that life continues elsewhere, oblivious to the dramas of others?

Saeed lives at home with his parents, Nadia lives alone, her robe is her protection, allowing her to live more freely than the alternatives. However as war approached the city, their lives must change and after hearing about an escape route, the couple decide to flee and to create a life elsewhere.

While they are in their hometown it is a story of a young couple attempting to overcome the lack of trust that exists in a culture where independent women live in fear, once they leave it becomes something else, they lack family, friends and community, they try to recreate those things in an environment that is antagonistic towards them. Their memories of what they have left change shape as the are afflicted by nostalgia, regret, loss. They struggle to find their place and even their relationship morphs into something unrecognisable in foreign lands.

There is no voyage, the journey takes place through a door, a portal to another world, to an island in Greece, to London, San Francisco, but the places they travel to bear little resemblance to those places as you and I might know them. They are inaccessible, frightening, there is a sense of them being hunted, of needing to be ready to run, always, it is a fearful dystopian view of supposed freedom from terror; death may have been a more desired alternative after all. And the slow unwinding of their relationship.

The combination of the real and surreal was a bit much for me, somehow it's easier to go with at the hand of Haruki Murakami, which in a way this reminds me a little of, but while Murakami feels more like pure fantasy, Moshin Hamid invites us to consider a subject that is very real in the modern world today and succeeds in making it disorienting to the reader. Perhaps that is the point.

I read Hala Alyan's novel Salt Houses (click title to read review) this year, which was also a novel of displacement, centred around multiple generations of Palestinian refugees, who attempt to make new lives in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and America and the challenges they face, even when they are able to retain certain family connections. It's a cultural loss that is not apparent on the surface, that Alyan digs deep into to reveal the subtle layers.

It makes an interesting complement to Mohsin Hamid's perspective of loss and dislocation.

For a more enlightened view of what this novel portends to show the reader, check out the following reviews:

Further Reading:

The Atlantic - Exit West and the Edge of Dystopia, by Sophia Gilbert

The Guardian - Magic and violence in migrants' tale by Andrew Motion

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.
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Hamid has managed to write a book that is timely (the city descending into war reminds me of memoirs written from within Beirut, Baghdad, and more recently, Aleppo), timeless (a relationship under tension and stress), and with just a hint of magical realism (doors that transport). He writes a love story under refugee situations that feels romantic yet real. It's a hard line to balance on but Hamid does it expertly.
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“We are all migrants of time.”

This timely, beautifully-crafted novel by the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist begins with a young man and woman who fall in love even as their country is falling apart. It follows the journey as the fragile refugee couple move from country to country, trying to find a place to belong. It is unsettling, because it is both painfully current but also because it has magical realism elements (refugees escape from country to country through magic doors that instantly transport them from one place to another.)

The magical realism forces you to think hard about the writing – for example, the descriptions of Greece sound very current and realistic, but the dystopian vision of London is not (yet) a true one. Sometimes this works well, other times it’s a distraction. For me the start was stronger than the end – post-London it lost some energy – but the start was so strong as to be extraordinary.

Highly recommended for its masterful prose, global worldview, complicated love story, and the painfully real examination of what it means to be displaced.
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This book is unforgettable, and stayed with me for a long time after I finished reading it. The author writes of brutality wrapped in matter of factness which makes it all the more horrifying. This is the story of the love between two young people, Saeed and Nadia, in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. But as chaos unfolds around them, there is a glimmer of hope. They hear of the existence of magical doors which will take you to other countries far away. This is a wonderfully thought-provoking story, a story of our time when migration is a way of life for so many people. As their country, which is never named, becomes filled with civil uprising and warfare they decide to pay to flee through one of these doors towards what they hope will be a better life. It is a story of the lives that migrants lead and hopes that they hold. It is the story of how they are received in the countries they move to. But more than anything it is a love story, and a story of our time which everyone should read.  A superb book, which I could not put down.
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This book was one hell of a ride!

I wasn't expecting it to be how it was. I thought it would all be about a wartorn country and two people's struggles through it, but it was a lot more than that. I certainly wasn't expecting the magical realism and the really refreshing narrative!

Pros about this book are that it's SO well written for one. The characters are thorough, deep and I was emotionally invested in them and their story. The little additions of other people around the world and their stories was absolutely charming. And the whole fact that this book showed the ugly side of humanity, yet it did it so artfully and creatively was wonderful.

I loved the idea of this alternate world where wartorn countries cause an influx of migrants into safer countries, and all the drama and consequences that happen as a result of that. It is so close to today's reality, but also so far. The concept of the black doors being magical portals--like escape pods--from one country to another, was fascinating. That people, if they have the right connections and money, can buy safe passage to somewhere else in the hopes of finding a place to belong, when their own home is ravaged and destroyed by militants. It's just marvelous and so damn clever. It's also clever how those very doors can be used as a source of power when taken over by the wrong people.

I loved the mini stories interloping with the main story of Nadia and Saeed. How you can transport from their wartorn country at that time, to somewhere else and witness in a brief glimpse what is happening to someone else at that exact moment. It paints this beautiful and wonderful and horrific picture of just how different two people's lives can be in the exact same world at the exact same time. It's humbling. It was just perfect. 

Granted, at first I didn't know why it was being mentioned, but after the first or second time of having this sort of out-of-body- almost Godly experience, I got it. And it just works. 

Which brings me to the narrative style. The style, from what I know of being a writer and all the taboo subjects on that side, is that the style used in Exit West is actually not a popular one. I believe it's in the third person omnipresent narrative which basically means you're reading it from a God-like perspective, able to jump in and out from one character to the next, but not exactly being them. Merely watching the scene from above but also being able to see what is in each person's head. It's not popular and many writers avoid it simply because IT IS SO HARD TO DO. You tend to find yourself mind-hopping which is really frowned upon, because it causes confusion when reading if not done properly. Mohsin Hamed does not do this, and he got this narrative down perfectly. It works perfectly for this book, because of the aforementioned mini stories and it also works because a lot of the time the author 'tells' us rather than 'shows' us what is going on.

This again is frowned upon by a lot of snotty folk who think they know how books should and shouldn't be written. Like there's a rule book for this sort of thing. I would normally agree with the idea that a story should do mostly showing than telling but with this book I make an exception. The author HAS to tell us a lot of what's going on because there's so much going on. Things need to be explained, and a lot of time and events needs to filtered into this neat, shorter summary. He still manages to keep important moments into the 'show' category, allowing us to experience firsthand those important moments between Saeed and Nadia.

I just loved this book. It was a nod to people suffering in any wartorn country because the country in the book is never mentioned by name. That was also a smart move by the author. It was just clever, not a shouting political read, but more of a subtle, knowing smile that's elegant and a lot is subjective and subtle in meaning. He leaves it to you to come to a lot of conclusions, which is always nice in my opinion. 

A thoroughly enjoyable read, lives up to the hype, and well worth it. Left me in tears, both good and sad and it'll be one that I'll remember.
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Incredibly thought provoking, timely and moving. A must read in our modern world, to remind ourselves what it is to be human.
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Although well written, this was a very depressing book. I would have liked for there to have been at least a glimmer of hope.
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3.5★

I did get caught up in the telling of this very important subject, but I gradually lost interest. It’s the story of refugees finding themselves in very foreign countries and how they and the natives deal with it. Their lives are uncertain, changing from bored hunger to terror when hearing a knock on a wall or a voice outside, but I’m afraid the repetitive nature of their boredom spilled over to me.

The style at first is pretty straightforward, and I didn’t care for it. Then the author started adding some long sentences with lots of thoughts connected, and I enjoyed these, as they kept me turning the page. After one too many, though, it felt like a device to make me read, which distracted me from the story itself and put me off. Might be just me. And I don't know how many there actually are. 

The story. Nadia and Saeed are the young woman and young man who live and work in an unnamed city where Saeed says morning and evening prayers and Nadia wears a black robe just to keep men from bothering her. So, somewhere in the Middle East. They meet when studying the same course.

Then there are the parents, and there’s quite a lively bit about his mother’s ravenous sexual appetite (no idea why), and all through the story, there’s a recurring theme about Nadia and Saeed: will-they-won’t-they progress beyond fiddling and diddling. 

Normal family dynamics, one might think. But then it’s mentioned, almost casually, that Nadia’s cousin had been

“ blown by a truck bomb to bits, literally to bits, the largest of which, in Nadia’s cousin’s case, were a head and two‑thirds of an arm.”

As events like this become everyday and things deteriorate further, they start looking for ways to escape to the West, and here the author has used magical realism, fantasy, call it what you like. It’s reminiscent of the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from 1950 or the more recent wormhole in Stephen King's novel 11/22/63, which I read only recently. Suffice it to say, refugee camps spring up all over the world, seemingly out of nowhere.

Here’s why they want to go. Saeed’s father is walking home. (At 138 words, this is not the longest sentence in the book, but you’ll get a sense of the style. I quite enjoy it . . . now and then. Occasionally.

“Once as he stood there he saw some young boys playing football and this cheered him, and reminded him of his own skill at the game when he was their age, but then he realized that they were not young boys, but teenagers, young men, and they were not playing with a ball but with the severed head of a goat, and he thought, barbarians, but then it dawned upon him that this was the head not of a goat but of a human being, with hair and a beard, and he wanted to believe he was mistaken, that the light was failing and his eyes were playing tricks on him, and that is what he told himself, as he tried not to look again, but something about their expressions left him in little doubt of the truth.”

And we have bodies on pikes, soldiers bursting into buildings, murdering people because of their last names, whatever. Time to go. But it's a terrible thing to leave family

"for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind."

Nadia and Saeed’s relationship keeps swinging between passion, friendship, camaraderie, disagreement and antagonism. Very often we’re told how they are sitting or sleeping, cramped in a tiny area, thighs touching, or arms touching or shoulders bumping or just huddled for warmth. They have to stick, literally stick, close together for protection, which makes their relationship even more difficult.

Nadia says the natives (where they've ended up) are so scared they might do anything.

"‘I can understand it,’ she said. ‘Imagine if you lived here. And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived.’

‘Millions arrived in our country,’ Saeed replied. ‘When there were wars nearby.’

‘That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.’

It's been my experience that in times of strife, it's those who don't have a lot to share who are the most generous. People like me, who live comfortably, are more protective of their own 'stuff'.

Their story didn't really grab me, but I am horrified by the overall plight of the millions of people in these situations, having to throw their lots in together, trusting people they don't know and just running from bombs and slaughter into who-knows-what. From the frying pan into the fire? 

I did enjoy meeting some of the other people. (Another long sentence.)

“Initially Nadia did not follow much of what was being said, just snippets here and there, but over time she understood more and more, and she understood also that the Nigerians were in fact not all Nigerians, some were half‑Nigerians, or from places that bordered Nigeria, from families that spanned both sides of a border, and further that there was perhaps no such thing as a Nigerian, or certainly no one common thing, for different Nigerians spoke different tongues among themselves, and belonged to different religions.”

I have no doubt this will be a runaway hit. I do hope it makes us all uncomfortable enough to pressure our countries to do better.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin / Hamish Hamilton for the review copy from which I’ve quoted.
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Really interesting idea, I wish it was longer!! A very important and relevant book for today's society.
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A deeply profound and unique story Exit West by Mohsin Hamid examines the transitory nature of life and how that applies particularly to those forced to choose between the known reality of turmoil at home and the unknown potential abroad.

...but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.
It begins with Saeed and Nadia in their home country teetering on the brink of some unnamed conflict- the tension and early destruction is sensed but life carries on with some degree of normalcy; it is still acceptable for a young man to find joy and friendship and love with a young woman.

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. For many days.
Saeed is traditional, cautious and chivalrous while Nadia is fiercely independent and guarded. Their friendship slowly progresses into something deeper as they share experiences and dialogue. Over time, they grow closer together, building a relationship as the world around them crumbles. Saeed's family becomes ensnared in the rising violence and as the conflict in their city reaches a pinnacle they must choose whether to stay or go. Consumed by grief, Saeed's father chooses to stay behind so Saeed and Nadia embark on the journey alone.

...but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.
A dubious meeting in a dark alley provides the passage Saeed and Nadia need- through a mysterious doorway into the blinding white light and out the other side into an unfamiliar country swollen with other travelers. This fantastical metaphor reveals the heart of this story. The ease through with Saeed and Nadia travel through the doors is in striking contrast to the process refugees undergo today. However, the living after the arrival is not quite as simple. In each locale they struggle to find safety and refuge, basic necessities like shelter and food. Sometimes they stay and other times they seek out another door, another country and a new future. This daily uncertainty begins to erode Saeed's and Nadia's relationship and they are forced to examine their current situation in the context of their love.

To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted, and await its fate, if only for a while.
As with all things, the doors attract opposition and eventually the travelling comes with greater inherent risks. Some doors are no longer safe to travel through as captors await the arrivals while others are heavily guarded or destroyed. However, the travelers are resilient and their persistence perpetuates the production of new doors. Hamid takes this opportunity to meditate on the present truth of this scenario.

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 head held high of what their generation had done.
Simple, fluid prose and elegantly strong metaphors provide accessibility to the deep significance of this novel. Exit West is almost deceiving in its initial simplicity as the narratives of Saeed and Nadia transcend generations but the purpose of their story and what it represents is exceedingly contemporary.

We are all migrants through time.
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The first half of this novel is incredible. A humanising view of people who become refugees. People like you and I. People with loves, dreams, hopes, crushed by regimes and war and forced to flee everything they hold dear to survive. Forced to unimaginable existences on the fringes of society. Looked upon with suspicion and hatred. Viewed as thieves, viewed as a threat, unwelcome, marginalised and shunned.
From the simple beginnings of boy meets girl, Hamid spins a tale that takes the central couple on a journey across Europe, fleeing their past, then fleeing their present, whilst always hopeful for a better future. This to me was the most engaging part of the tale. The aftermath, where they settle and then grow apart, was seemingly inevitable after all they'd been through, but it just felt a little flat after the lush evocative prose of the first half of the book.
Nevertheless, this is well worth a read, if only for Hamid's writing. He takes a current political nightmare and gives it a personal face, and names, and makes you see what's going on on the news from the point of view of the victims. Hugely thought-provoking, I hope this book reaches the hands of those marginalising and shunning those who seek sanctuary on our shores.
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