using magical realism & reading for academic purposes: Exit West review

While I am an avid book reader, something about being forced to read a book for school has always turned me away from my favourite past-time. Although, I unfortunately find that reading a book with an academic mindset is the way that I fully appreciate a novel, and in the end, end up loving it more. For my first review/discussion on this blog, I’m going to be talking about my second read of the year — Exit West by Hohsin Hamid.– which was also a required piece of text for my ’21st Century Literature’ class. So with the discussion, I’ll also be going into what I find to be the ~beauty~ of reading for academic purposes.

Exit West follows main characters Saeed and Nadia as they are forced to flee their home country and migrate all across the world. Although, in Hamid’s world, immigrants are able to migrate through magical doors that act like the wardrobe from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S Lewis. Allowing people to enter one door in Tokyo, and exit another in San Fransisco (and that’s just an example!). This devices creates an aspect of magical realism, in a shockingly real and truthful story.

To start, this is the first ‘adult’ book I’ve read in quite a while. Seeing as I normally read YA (young adult) literature, this took me a little longer to read than normal. I gave myself about two weeks to read this bad boy, when I’d usually plough through a book this size (231 pages) in one night.

Although truthfully, the main reason it took me so long to read this, was because I was stopping every few minutes to write down notes (for my class), and underline quotes that I liked (for my own pleasure). The book as a whole is quite easy to read — even though it doesn’t contain ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ subject matter. The way Hamid writes is beautifully lyrical, and flows from sentence to sentence effortlessly. One of the ways Hamid does this is by having very long sentences, and when I say long sentences I mean half a page without a period. an example being:

“… When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope….” 
― Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

This style of writing makes everything smooth and in the end easier to read, even though a lot of the subject matter is very dark and hard to comprehend. For instance, a moment where I noticed this, is a scene where Saeed’s father watches a group of children playing. He at first sees the children kicking around a football, then he realizes it is a severed goat head, and then he finally realizes that it is the head of a human being. While this scene is in the end harrowing and quite disturbing, the way Hamid presents it makes it both more impactful, and easier to read.

So the fun thing about this book, which is mainly full of dark and saddening content, is it’s aspect of ‘magical realism’ — Magical realism being when magical elements are blended into realistic or mundane atmospheres. In Exit West migrants are able to migrate through magical doors that take you from one place to another almost instantly. The only ‘side effect’ being slight fatigue and disorientation for a short while. This is ultimately very interesting as well as convenient for Hamid’s story telling. seeing as It allows him to move his characters around the world very easily.

The only thing that bothered me with these doors (and to be honest the book in general) was the it left me wanting more. There is very little information on the doors — where they came from, how they form, how they work, if they stay forever, how long they’ve been around — long list short I had A LOT of questions once I flipped the last page. This is ultimately one of the very few critiques I have for this book. As I really loved the style of writing, the characters, and the story itself as a whole.

As I said a couple paragraphs up, this was required reading for my ’21st Century Literature’ class, and while I was forced to read it– it was one of the very few ‘school books’ that I’ve actually wanted to read. While in my spare time I would call myself a “bookworm” and have always loved reading — in high school when it came to reading the books for English class, I would pretty much never actually read them. Although, I’m ultimately sad I did this, and am making it a goal in university to ALWAYS read my required texts. The main reason being that I notice a huge difference when I read a book for academic purposes, rather than simply pleasure.

Of course, from time to time reading a book just to ‘read a book’ is fun — but I find the way that I fully appreciate a book inside and out, is when I read it with a ‘school’ mindset. When I take the time to annotate, underline quotes, or put sticky notes on ‘important’ sections, I find that I read a lot more in-depth. I’ll admit to the heinous crime of “skim reading” from time to time, when all I want is to get to the end of a book. This happens when I’m reading a book just to get what happens — as opposed to how it all happens, or why it happens. Although, when I do this I find myself missing out on 50% of the details, some of which being very important in the end.

Although, I find that when I read books for my English classes, I stray away from the skim reading habit. I do this because I know I’m going to have to look for a deeper meaning at one point, why not just do it now? In the end this has helped me really appreciate books for what they’re worth. For not only the story, but for the technical elements like writing. This has helped me discover and really love some amazing books — like for instance one of my all time favourites: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. So, I’d definitely suggest it to anyone — English major or not!

To conclude, Exit West is a beautifully thought out novel that is written smooth like butter, with quotes speckled in here and there that I’ll remember forever. The only problem being that I was left wanting for more than I was given, and wished to know more of these ‘magical doors’.

“We are all migrants through time.” 
― Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

My overall rating of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is ★★★★☆ — 4/5

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