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“Exit West” Offers Touching love story in midst of Middle Eastern carnage

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By Bill Williams

Exit West By Mohsin Hamid 231 pp., $26.00 Riverhead Books, 2017

Exit West” offers a touching love story set against the background of Middle Eastern bloodshed. The author, Mohsin Hamid, grabs our attention with his new novel as it follows the lives of two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who desperately want to escape from the senseless carnage engulfing their unnamed country.

The couple hear stories about magical doors that whisk people to distant, safer lands. When someone offers to lead them to such a door, they decide to try it and are instantly transported to a beach on a Greek island, along with countless other refugees.

When they tire of the hardships of life in a refugee environment, they open another door and find themselves among refugees in London. Their final door venture takes them close to San Francisco.

Magical doors are an effective literary device, reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s imagination in his recent book, “The Underground Railroad,” which envisioned a real train running below ground and carrying escaping slaves to northern cities.

“Exit West” transports us to a violent place much like present day Iraq or Syria. An exploding bomb blows off the head of one of Nadia’s cousins. Men and women die after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.

While the story details the challenges of daily life in countries racked by religious and ethnic violence, there are many tender moments involving Saeed and Nadia’s blossoming love. In a surprise reversal of roles, Saeed, who is Muslim, tells Nadia that he does not believe in sex before marriage.

The section on London describes the hatred and violence of nativist mobs determined to drive out refugees. One attack by men carrying iron bars and knives injures one of Nadia’s eyes and splits Saeed’s lip, leaving him dripping with blood.

Ugly scenes of rape, bombs and knife attacks remind us of the real horror visited on refugees landing in some countries today, as well as the ongoing U.S. debate on limiting the influx of refugees.

Mohsin Hamid resides in Pakistan, where he was born. He has spent much of his life in America and graduated from Harvard Law School. He has written three previous novels. This latest will increase his reputation as a master storyteller.

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