Exit West and Noah’s Compass

It appears the Masters golf tournament is on and baseball has started so it must be officially spring. Are the azaleas in bloom where you are? No buds are open here yet, but the yard is raked up and ready to hopefully turn green soon.

My book assistant, at left, duly noted that I gave both of the books I completed last week 3.5 stars on Goodreads. They might not have been complete home runs for me, but they were still worthwhile. I know others gave Mohsin Hamid’s book 5 stars, so perhaps it was just me and my scattered brain last week that made it less so. But here are my reviews. …

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, 2017, 240 pages, Riverhead Books

I’ve had this British-Pakistani author in my sights since his 2007 novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” gained much exposure and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I always supposed it would have made for a good book club kind of discussion book — being about a Pakistani immigrant in America in the wake of 9/11 — but then my group never selected it and I didn’t get to it.

So I jumped to read Hamid’s latest novel “Exit West,” which is similarly timely with world events. It’s a story that captures a world in flux, full of war and mass migrations that follows a young couple Saeed and Nadia, “who leave an unnamed country in the midst of a civil war and journey to Greece, England and eventually the United States in an effort to invent new lives for themselves,” so writes Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times.

It’s a story too that has a bit of magic to it as there are rumored to be magical doors, which Saeed and Nadia seek out, that are said to transport refugees to safer parts of the world. In interviews, the author says he used the device because he wasn’t interested so much in the characters’ physical migrations as he was in writing about the psychology of their exile, loss, and dislocation once they left their homeland. I found the doors played a minor role in the story and didn’t disrupt from its overall picture, which I was glad about since I’m not usually a fan of magical realism and the like.

“Exit West” is a story I liked for its premise and observations about a world that reminded me of the civil war in Syria and of people fleeing unimaginable conditions. I found many of its sentences to be heartfelt, truthful, and beautifully rendered. I was curious too about Saeed and Nadia falling in love during such a time and what would become of their relationship away from their homeland.

The only trouble was the storytelling in that regard felt a bit distant and lacking to me. I wanted to be more connected to the characters and the story as my mind wandered too much while reading the novel to other things. The interspersed segments it included on other refugees also failed to fully capture me. So alas, I felt the storytelling could’ve been more involved and better, but still I was glad to have read it. The novel paints a stark glimpse of people forced to leave their homelands, their alienation, and the ties they leave behind.

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler, 2009, 277 pages, Knopf

Meanwhile, I listened to this novel as an audiobook last week. It’s been a long while since I picked up an Anne Tyler book — maybe not since the ’80s and ’90s when I read her novels “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and “The Accidental Tourist.” They were so good, but then for whatever reason I never read anymore of her books. Perhaps I thought they were too domestic or family-oriented stories that were all a bit quirky and similar. But boy, I think I’ve missed out — as this book reminds me — she is a master novelist and storyteller.

The funny thing is this novel (her 18th) is apparently considered to be one of her weakest according to her ardent fans and critics, but still I enjoyed it and found some parts funny and endearing. Tyler is said to be known for her middle-age male protagonists who are often sad sacks  that undergo violent encounters or midlife crises of some sort that ultimately change their lives with their families.

And this book is no exception. It’s about 61-year-old Liam Pennywell, a divorced father of three daughters, who gets let go from his job as a 5th grade teacher and then is knocked unconscious from a burglar at his apartment. He doesn’t remember a thing about the attack, but later drifts into a wayward time where he gets involved with a 38-year-old frumpy woman named Eunice, who leads him astray and ultimately makes him want to regain closer ties with his daughters and ex-wife.

The story’s narration is not unlike that of a Kent Haruf book; I recently completed “Benediction” and this reminded me a bit of that — the everyday-ness of it, the concentration on domestic family members and matters, and the older male protagonist. But Tyler’s tale throws in some amusing parts as well; at one point the mother (Bootsie) of the young burglar asks if Liam will meet the boy and be a character witness for her son at his trial, saying he’s really a good kid despite knocking Liam unconscious and robbing various people’s homes. It’s a funny scene that’s quite a hoot and made me shake my head in disbelief. It’s probably one that only Anne Tyler could pull off so well.

It’s true “Noah’s Compass” is a story not without its faults, but I found it entertaining and endearing. I’ve heard Tyler’s stories have been criticized for being sentimental, but luckily I didn’t find this story to be overtly so. It’s a book that actually makes me want to go back and pick up more of Tyler’s stories in the future. Which one is your favorite?

And what about you — have you read either of these books or authors, and if so, what did you think?

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33 Responses to Exit West and Noah’s Compass

  1. Our azaleas bloomed a while ago and then it got cold again. Luckily, we have encore azaleas so they’ll bloom again. Sorry it wasn’t a stellar book week for you.

  2. Carmen says:

    Exit West sounds intriguing for the timeliness of its topic. I didn’t read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but I saw the movie adaptation and I thought its premise was emotionally manipulative and naive, but maybe it’s me thinking that Islamic fundamentalism, however reluctant, leads its followers to mass murderer. There is nothing sentimental about terrorism.

    We need comfort reads from time to time. I used to read Norah Roberts and Barbara Delinski when I was starting to read in English. I loved those novels but I have drifted away from that kind of reads. Someday, perhaps I’ll be reacquainted.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Carmen, was there really a movie of the Reluctant Fundamentalist? I guess I didn’t hear about that. I have a copy of the book but haven’t read it. The word fundamentalism can spook me no matter what it’s referring to. Comfort reads can be nice things occasionally.

  3. Brian Joseph says:

    I like your book assistant!

    Exit West is so timely. With that, the magical aspects seem a little out of place, but in the hands of a skilled writer things such a mix can work.

    It is too bad that parts of the story fell a little short.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Brian, my book assistant is a good girl, usually when she’s not stealing socks. Exit West was still an interesting read so I’m glad I read it. Some pretty sentences and thoughts too.

  4. It has been a while, but I remember enjoying Noah’s Compass. I have loved many of Tyler’s books, and one of my favorites was An Accidental Tourist…I also have the movie.

    Ladder of Years and A Spool of Blue Thread were also memorable to me.

    I am curious about Exit West. Thanks for sharing, and enjoy your week!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Laurel, I think I would like to get to those Anne Tyler novels you mention. I liked The Accidental Tourist quite a bit, but it’s been a long time, lol. She does like some quirky male characters.

  5. I don’t think Azaleas are blooming but there are tons of wasps out this weekend!! Something needs to bloom to get them away from my door! 🙂

    You’ve just added one to my TBR. I don’t think I’ve ever read an Anne Tyler but I own a couple that I’ve certainly always meant to read and Noah’s Compass is one. Thanks for the nudge!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks for stopping by Laura. Yeah the wasps can be a nuisance! But it’s too early here for them. I think you might like an Anne Tyler novel, if not Noah’s Compass, then another one. Her stories are usually quite entertaining.

  6. Deb Nance at Readerbuzz says:

    I haven’t decided whether to read East West. I loved his first book.

    Anne Tyler has always been a favorite though I wasn’t wild about some of her early books.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Deb, I found Exit West so-so but you might like it better. Glad to hear you like some of Anne Tyler’s books.

  7. Hello Susan. Oh, what a lovely book assistant!
    I’m back home. Thank you very much for your messages.
    My favorite is without a doubt Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler. I definitely want to read about Tyler’s stories. As you say it so well she is a master novelist and storyteller. Thank you for reminding me of her.
    Otherwise, I just read Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris. And I started reading Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Have a great week ! 🙂

    • Susan Wright says:

      Oh thanks RT, my book assistant loves compliments! She’s a people person, or girl, always wanting attention. Glad you are back, you seem to be on a roll with your reading. It’s nice I have returned to Anne Tyler’s writing. She is a master in ways. Glad you know her too. I will stop by your site again and see what you are up to. 🙂

  8. Judy Krueger says:

    One of my reading groups, Laura’s Group, chose Exit West for our May read at my suggestion:) I read How To Get Filthy Rich and liked it quite a bit. He does have that detached tone but he got to me in wily ways. I don’t know if I could take too much connection with characters in such a grueling subject as immigration these days, you know?
    The same thing happened to me with Anne Tyler. I loved the first couple books of hers I read and then dropped away only to come back to her in recent years. I haven’t found one book of hers disappointing. She has her own special knack. I think one of my favorites was Back When We Were Grownups.
    I am happy for you that you are getting flowers now!!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Judy, Oh I’m glad you’re going to read Exit West. It is worth reading with some pretty passages; it was just a bit detached for me. But I liked his premise of the world in flux though it was grim. So much sadness right now. Thanks for giving me the Anne Tyler title that was your favorite. Every once in awhile I will mix one of hers in. She has some humor about her which helps the darker stuff. And well we aren’t really getting flowers just yet but I am ready for planting. Here the blooms on trees come in mid-May. I put the flower header at top on b/c I want that to happen, LOL. I’m sure your yard is full of color now, eh?

  9. JaneGS says:

    I haven’t read much Anne Tyler, and it’s been decades since I read anything by her, though I always mean to. Interesting that you compare the narration to Kent Haruf, one of my current favorite authors. I recently read Benediction also, and so I will add Noah’s Compass to my list if it is in the same vein.

    Accidental Tourist was probably the last book by Tyler that I read.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Jane, yeah before this Accidental Tourist had been my last Tyler read as well. Her book reminded me a bit of Haruf’s everyday-ness narration, though his novel Benediction seemed more somber or a bit darker than Noah’s Compass which is a bit quirky. Still I’d be interested to hear what you think of the Tyler book in comparison.

  10. Ti says:

    Oh my word I used to love Anne Tyler in the 90s. But like you, I haven’t read her since.

    That Exit West book looks interesting but I’m not sure it’s for me. I’ve heard mixed reviews.

    Right now I am reading The Barrowfield’s and it’s very good. Hope to finish it tonight or tomorrow. I am a bit behind with my review copies.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Ti, I look forward to hearing what you think about The Barrowfield’s. I haven’t heard too much about it yet, but if you think it’s very good then I’m all ears and I should probably look for it. I have such a big pile of books I’m behind to read at this point. Yikes.

  11. Naomi says:

    Exit West seems to be getting mixed reviews – some people seem to be raving about it while others not so much. Makes me think it’s a book that depends on a reader’s tastes and maybe also their mood. I’d be interested to try it, but I think I need something lighter right now. Like another Robertson Davies! 😉

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Naomi — you’re probably right about Exit West; there’s some really good writing in it but it was just a bit detached of the characters for me. Is Robertson Davies considered light in mood? Quite a Canadian icon who I still need to read.

  12. Michelle says:

    Other neighbors have daffodils in bloom, but all of our spring flowers are still bloomless. This has been an oddly chilly and damp spring. I feel like I am growing gills with all of the rain we keep having!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Michelle, wow I didn’t realize Wisconsin was getting a lot of rain lately. I hope you see the sun soon! thanks for stopping by.

  13. I recently finished Exit West and I completely agree with you. It was good but it felt like there was too much distance between me and the story. I’m not a fan of magical realism either. The magical doors device wasn’t too intrusive but I still wish it hadn’t been used at all.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Kate, Glad to know you felt the same about Exit West. After seeing all the raving reviews of it on Goodreads, I wasn’t sure if it was me or the book. But there did seem to be too much distance for me. And I agree with you on the doors too.

      • I’m curious–did you read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead? That was another book that used unintrusive but still noticeable elements of magical realism that everyone I know seemed to love. It also evoked the same feeling of distance for me and yet, I seem to be one of a small minority that felt that way.

        • Susan Wright says:

          You know I picked it up but then put the Colson book down so I haven’t read it yet. I think I do plan to read it this year. I’m wondering if like you I’ll be in the minority who doesn’t end up loving it, but we will see. I do find distance can be a problem for me. I can’t believe how many awards the book won. I will get to it eventually.

          • I’ll be interested to read your review if/when you read it. I was astonished at the number of awards too. I think Homegoing was a better novel in many ways and deserved to win all those awards. Unfortunately, it seems like debut authors rarely win the big ones. Sometimes it feels more like a popularity contest than anything.

  14. I listened to Exit West on audio and loved it! Hamid read it himself and I was completely engaged the entire story. I’m not usually a fan of magical realism, but in this book I thought it really worked. It may end up being one of my favorite books this year!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Susie: I’m glad Exit West worked for you; I did like its premise and themes. The magical doors didn’t bother me in this novel; their role was kept fairly minor.

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