Six reading groups shadowed the Man Booker Prize this year. Each group read and reviewed one of the shortlisted titles. Here, we focus on Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, Saeed and Nadia lock eyes across their classroom. After a while, they talk, he makes her smile and they start to fall in love. They try not to notice the sound of bombs getting closer every night, the radio announcing new laws, the curfews and the public executions.
Eventually the problem is too big to ignore: it’s not safe for Nadia to live alone and she must move in with Saeed, even though they are not married, and that too is a problem. Meanwhile, rumours are spreading of strange black doors in secret places across the city, doors that lead to London or San Francisco, Greece or Dubai. One day soon the time will come for Nadia and Saeed to seek out one such door, joining the great outpouring of those fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world.
Mohsin Hamid writes regularly for The New York Times, the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, and is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize), Moth Smoke, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Discontent and its Civilisations. Born in 1971, he was mostly raised in Lahore, and has since lived between Lahore, London and New York.
Reading group review
“Our Book Group met on Friday, 13 October 2017 to discuss Exit West. Unusually, we had decided combine our discussion with eating dim sum on Charlotte Street. This gave a square table, conducive to discussion, but an atmosphere that grew louder as time went on, which was a little less so. Given all the ingredients, a lively discussion was guaranteed.
Everyone present had read the whole book; an achievement that deserved and received a toast. Exit West is just 229 pages, which definitely helped, and is both accessible and page-turning. Everyone liked the novel although to varying degrees; from Donna’s, “It’s exactly what I want in a novel” to Gen’s, “I liked it but I won’t keep it”.
There was discussion of the plain and yet evocative language in the novel. It contains many quotable sentences, with “We are all migrants through time” particularly highlighted. Claudia commented on how she had read it fairly quickly even though she usually reads slowly in English; her second language. A thought that occurred post-discussion is whether this is a deliberate choice of the author – related to the subject matter – to make the book accessible to those for whom English is an additional language.
Tash spoke about how Exit West evoked her own experiences of migration but was at the same time a little frustrated at what she perceived as a glossing over of practicalities.
Last month’s read was The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and the books have many similarities; thus a fair bit of the conversation was spent comparing and contrasting. We even had a show of hands – that was fairly evenly divided – as to who had preferred each one. The Underground Railroad was Man Booker longlisted and is the winner of many other awards including the Pulitzer and Clarke Award. Exit West is on the Man Booker shortlist, is longlisted for the Carnegie medal and should be eligible for the Clarke Award in 2018. In both novels there is a fantastical device that transports people in peril (slaves during US history, or, refugees in now or the near future). We had a good discussion about which was the more fantastical: anachronistic and technically unbelievable steam engines travelling on track underground between US states, or, stepping through doors and being almost instantaneously transported from perhaps a café in Mexico to a bedroom in Australia.
The book is centred on Nadia and Saeed’s relationship as they become refugees seeking a new home in other places, including London. Everyone was appreciative of the realistic depiction of the relationship. However, the book is interspersed with little vignettes of others whose lives are affected by the doors and the opportunities and threats that they bring. These small stories are very touching and provoked at least as much comment.
Overall, Our Book Group is very pleased to have been given Exit West to read and backs it to be the Man Booker prize winner."
Meet all of the shadow reading groups for this year.
If your reading group would like to apply for similar opportunities in the future, please visit our Noticeboard.
You can listen to the brilliant Man Booker Prize podcast audio series on Soundcloud with Joe Haddow from Radio 2.
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For more information, visit the Man Booker Prize website.