Monday, November 5, 2018

Exit West | Mohsin Hamid

Alas, my friends, the final Honors Read book review! Now, I must whittle down my chosen few to an even choosier few (I'm going to go ahead and say that yes, that's a phrase). Soon, just two books will remain in the stack, and then just one! The final pick is a bit of a wild card, a book that I've read twice before: once when I chose it as my Book of the Month, and once when it was required reading on my study abroad trip in London this past summer. 

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid follows Nadia and Saeed as their country devolves into civil war, their streets fill with soldiers and refugees, and their relationships are put at risk by nearly every outside factor that counts. This is a book that takes place anywhere. (Everywhere? Nowhere? Perhaps it is all three at once.) It's a book categorized by its magical and placeless realism, and it would make an immensely interesting pick for the Honors Read. 

With 68,600+ ratings on Goodreads and over 9,300 reviews, EXIT WEST is a well-known-big-deal. It's gotten many, many an award and its author, Mohsin Hamid, is no breakout star. He's been acclaimed as far back as 2000 when his book MOTH SMOKE won the NYT Notable Book of the Year Award. Frankly, it's been quite difficult for me to find out what he's up to now and whether or not he would be interested in coming to the University to participate in some sort of moderated discussion/presentation about EXIT WEST. His website features a few tidbits from interviews in which he speaks about political crises and migration policy, and if I've found it correctly, his Twitter (featuring only two tweets) hasn't been updated in over two years. 

Readability ★★★★★

And onto categorical analysis we go! Let's be real, guys: college is immensely overwhelming and there's a fair chance that whichever book we decide to chuck at the freshmen is going to be left in a box of To College items that won't be touched until it's shoved in an SUV and then into a dorm room in late August. When the time comes for the Honors course material covering the book, many freshmen will scramble to read it quickly before the 20th/21st/22nd (when does school start? what is time?) rolls around. EXIT WEST is only 231 pages long in hardcover and it's so captivating from the get-go that I imagine anyone who gives it the time it deserves to get into its magical realism will have trouble putting it down. 

There's some mild, mild sexual innuendo but nothing stark or shield-your-eyes-honey-they're-taking-their-clothes-off type content. Consider this book extremely readable to an audience of first year undergraduate students. (And extremely readable to an audience of begrudging professors otherwise unwilling to step into anything labeled genre.)

Applicability ★★★★★

Another perfect score! How much more applicable can this book get? Not only can it appeal to those interested in history, Middle Eastern culture, international politics/relations, physics, inter-personal relationships and the dilution thereof, and societal shifts in normalcy, but this book will appeal to people who have never stepped foot in the realm of anything mildly fantastical. 

(I realize that at this point in the review, I haven't divulged what exactly makes this book fantastical, but I don't believe in hardcore spoilers and I don't think that they're necessary for good reviews. I'll tell you that there are doors that don't always work the way we think they would.)

As further evidence of direct relevance, some quotes featured on Hamid's website:

"Part of the great political crisis we face in the world today is a failure to imagine plausible desirable futures. We are surrounded by nostalgic visions, violently nostalgic visions. Fiction can imagine differently.... We certainly need it now. Because if we can’t imagine desirable futures for ourselves that stand a chance of actually coming to pass, our collective depression could well condemn humanity to a period of terrible savagery." New Yorker interview (EXIT WEST)

"I understand that people are afraid of migrants. If you're in a wealthy country, it's understandable that you might fear the arrival of lots of people from far away. But that fear is like racism: it's understandable, but it needs to be countered, diminished, resisted. People are going to move in vast numbers in the coming decades and centuries. Sea levels will rise, weather patterns will change, and billions will move. We need to figure out how to build a vision for this coming reality that isn't a disaster, that is humane and even inspiring." Lit Hub interview (EXIT WEST)

Transformation ★★★★★

Though this is no longer a veritable section of the requisite Honors College criteria, it's important to note how dynamic Saeed and Nadia are. We get glimpses of (unnamed/unshared) religious belief, of disparaging traditions that are contested by others, of relationships that do not survive the story in the way that we may hope. Forgive the following wild list of themes, but this book brings to light sexuality and friendship, the violence of external circumstances, and the humanity implicit in needing to protect people that you do not necessarily have the power to protect. 


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