“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days.”
Exit West explores the difficulties a country and its inhabitants face when confronted with conflict. The novel takes place in present day in an unidentified city – its name is never revealed to the reader. What the reader does know is that this city has been taken over by anti-government militants, and acts of violence are being committed each and every day. At the beginning of the story, residents are, for the most part, still able to go about their day. And that’s exactly how Nadia meets Saaed – while attending an evening class for business school.
Nadia is bold and independent which contrasts Saeed’s subdued demeanor. Despite their differences, the two are inexplicably drawn to one another.
“Saaed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what exactly she was feeling, but she knew it had force.” The two spend more time together even as the city around them falls apart – food is rationed, neighborhoods are bombed, and airstrikes are launched. Curfews are enforced and phone service and internet connection are suspended. These circumstances place significant barriers on Nadia and Saaed’s relationship, but they continue to see each other as much as they can.
As conditions worsen, Saeed and Nadia search for ways to flee their city. Rumors circulate about mysterious doors that are able to transport people to faraway places where they can seek safety, shelter, and new lives. It soon becomes clear that these doors do exist, and Saeed and Nadia make arrangements prepare for their departure.
Nadia and Saeed exit their city through one of the doors, leaving everything that they know behind and looking forward to new opportunity, frightened but hopeful. They find themselves on a Greek island with many other refugees. In time, they grow restless and seek a new location. They go door-to-door throughout Europe and North America until they have found the place they can finally call home. Throughout this journey, Nadia and Saeed learn more about each other, but mainly make discoveries about themselves.
Through his beautifully crafted words, Hamid makes a relevant statement about our current world, reflecting the harsh realities of a country in conflict and inhabitants that are desperate to escape. As Donald Trump reveals his plan to ban refugee admission into the U.S., this novel emulates the struggles people face when they make the decision to leave their home country. Last year, 10,000 Syrians fled to the US in order to escape the civil war in their country. These refugees are human beings with hopes, fears, dreams, and potential. Exit West challenges the way many people think regarding immigration policies and emphasizes the value of human life.
Hamid’s decision to leave Nadia and Saeed’s home country unnamed makes the story even more powerful and shows that any town, city, or country can be suddenly disrupted and torn apart by war.
The magical realism of the doors was not overbearing so the story still felt mostly real, but it was an important part of the story that was so vaguely described. Many aspects of the story lacked substance and could have benefited from greater lengths of detail, characterization and dialogue.
Hamid’s style of writing is vague in detail at times but remains extremely poetic and symbolic. As he writes about the changes in the world around them, he also displays the changes in Nadia and Saeed’s relationship. “All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields, and slipping away from other people too, people they had in some cases loved, as Nadia was slipping away from Saeed, and Saeed from Nadia.”
Exit West wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but it was something more. Hamid’s novel is sad, honest, hopeful, but most of all, relevant to our time. This book is extremely powerful, forcing readers to reexamine the state of the world we live in and the issues that impact us the most, while reminding us that we are all connected as members of the human race.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of four novels, Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Exit West, and a book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations.His writing has been featured on bestseller lists, adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, selected as winner or finalist of twenty awards, and translated into thirty-five languages.Born in Lahore, he has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.