One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory and a book to savor even while despairing of its truths.

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EXIT WEST

Hamid (Discontent and Its Civilizations, 2014, etc.) crafts a richly imaginative tale of love and loss in the ashes of civil war.

The country—well, it doesn’t much matter, one of any number that are riven by sectarian violence, by militias and fundamentalists and repressive government troops. It’s a place where a ponytailed spice merchant might vanish only to be found headless, decapitated “nape-first with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort.” Against this background, Nadia and Saeed don’t stand much of a chance; she wears a burka but only “so men don’t fuck with me,” but otherwise the two young lovers don’t do a lot to try to blend in, spending their days ingesting “shrooms” and smoking a little ganga to get away from the explosions and screams, listening to records that the militants have forbidden, trying to be as unnoticeable as possible, Saeed crouching in terror at the “flying robots high above in the darkening sky.” Fortunately, there’s a way out: some portal, both literal and fantastic, that the militants haven’t yet discovered and that, for a price, leads outside the embattled city to the West. “When we migrate,” writes Hamid, “we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” True, and Saeed and Nadia murder a bit of themselves in fleeing, too, making new homes in London and then San Francisco while shed of their old, innocent selves and now locked in descending unhappiness, sharing a bed without touching, just two among countless nameless and faceless refugees in an uncaring new world. Saeed and Nadia understand what would happen if millions of people suddenly turned up in their country, fleeing a war far away. That doesn’t really make things better, though. Unable to protect each other, fearful but resolute, their lives turn in unexpected ways in this new world.

One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory and a book to savor even while despairing of its truths.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-73521-217-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

THE WINTER GUEST

An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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