Synopsis: A young couple falls in love in a war-torn Middle Eastern country, flees the country, and then falls out of love.
Book Review: There are few things more annoying that someone who’s completely ignorant on a subject walking into a room of knowledgeable people and deciding s/he should show them the proper way to do things. In the cryo community this is usually the person who says “lol, water crystals would shred all your cells when you freeze yourself.” In genre fiction circles it happens every few years when a self-important LitFic author decides to use a touch of magic, or near-future speculation, in a novel, and all the EarthFic’ers gush about how imaginative and unique it is.
I’d heard a lot about Exit West. Apparently it was beloved by the New York Times and all the literati elite, so I had high hopes for it. Of course, that it’s beloved of those people should have been my first warning. Exit West is straight-up boring-ass LitFic, with a flimsy magical element stapled on. I’m of the opinion that if you want to write LitFic but you don’t have the skill to do it, all you have to do is add a genre element and these goons that’ve never read any fantasy because it’s too low-brow for them will excuse all your blundering because they have no idea what makes a good story.
Everything that Exit West tries to do, it does poorly. It “appropriates” (as much as I hate this word, it almost feels right here) a fairy-tale narrative style, without having any idea what makes that style work. It has none of the whimsical lyricism or fairytale logic that a proper fairytale narrative employs. Valente and Hughart know how to make this style a force to be reckoned with. Hamid just uses a detached, head-hopping, omniscient narrator as a shortcut to putting any work into his writing, and tries to hide that by using the vocabulary of fairytale fiction.
It fails horrifically as a genre work because it never once bothers to explore any of the ramifications of the magic portals, besides the one specific aspect needed to make Hamid’s plot work. The reduction of all distances to zero is good for more than just easy border-crossing for refugees. It would be an existential threat to all geography-based states. Too Like The Lightning had damn good speculation about what happens to a world where distance no longer matters. The portals in Exit West should have been replaced by a highly-skilled human smuggler, because that’s literally all they are.
It fails as LitFic as well, because it never bothers to Show anything. The neat trick that LitFic is monomaniacally focused on is to never Tell, only Show, and make the reader feel all the emotions the author is intending only through lovingly detailed action. No one ever says “She felt lonely.” Instead they describe for four pages the protagonist going into her garden, pouring salt on the snails threatening her tomatoes, and then watching them melt slowly while reflecting on her relationship with her husband. And when it’s done right, the reader feels lonely. Exit West does the opposite. It’s a non-stop stream of Tellling. He was lonely. She was a rebel. They talked about leaving. There’s seriously entire chapters without a line of dialog, because Hamid can’t even be bothered to show us two humans interacting. He just gives a quick summary of a conversation. And the result is an absolute failure to connect emotionally with the reader. I don’t care about anyone in the book. I’ve read textbooks that are more engaging.
There is one thing Exit West does very well, and that’s the beautiful analogies that perfectly capture a moment. Things like “Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.” These sorts of things are sprinkled all throughout the text, and they are a delight. Unfortunately they are wasted in a narrative that does nothing with them.
Book Club Review: Turnout was high for this book. Telling has an advantage over Showing in that it is fast, and simple. Often one has to use Telling in the interests of saving time and word count. (“She felt lonely” is three words; four pages of text are 1000). Since Exit West is entirely Telling, it is both short, and extremely easy/fast to read. This made it easy for people to race through it.
In addition, the fact that it annoyed so many people got a lot of them to come and vent their frustrations. So we had a fair bit to talk about. However I cannot, in good conscious, recommend that someone waste even a few hours of their life on this. Not Recommended.