Exit West is a 2017 novel by Mohsin Hamid that blends fiction and magical realism. The story follows dual protagonists Nadia and Saeed, a young woman and man who live in an unnamed city that is gradually beset upon by militants. Though Nadia is more independent and outspoken, which goes against tradition, and Saeed is generally more conservative, the two begin a romantic relationship. As they try to survive day-to-day in their city, with the militants encroaching further and further, mysterious doors begin popping up there and around the world, linking places many miles apart. As life in the city becomes nearly unlivable the two seek out one of these doors to escape the daily violence and build a new life far away.
I really enjoyed the two distinctly active layers of the story: the love story between Nadia and Saeed, and the influx of migrants and refugees around the world thanks to the doors. In the latter case I liked that no effort was made to explain why these doors are appearing. It doesn’t matter why. Without physical borders to cross and miles to traverse to get there, it reframes the refugee crisis into something more privileged nations have to directly reckon with, whether they want to or not. The backlash one would expect from something like this happening, such as violence from the people already living in a certain place, does happen. I was ultimately made hopeful by the story, however, as the worst in us is confronted and a more optimistic approach to the crisis presents itself. It’s not idealistic, but not steeped in pessimism either.
While having a cultural approach to romance distinctly different from my own, I loved how universal the relationship between Nadia and Saeed felt. While he is the more conservative of the two, I liked that he was still more than accepting of how outside of the norm she was. For her part, I liked that she didn’t try to force him to cross his own personal boundaries either, for the most part respecting the lines he would set that he personally wasn’t comfortable crossing. Their relationship is not an idyllic partnership of two somewhat contrary viewpoints, however, and a lot of what made their relationship even more compelling was how their constantly changing environment tested them. Time, of course, played a factor as well and Hamid poignantly explores how we often must contend with a sense of distance growing between ourselves and our romantic partners.
What struck me as most unique about this story was the writing style, which I can best describe as third-person stream of consciousness. Hamid utilizes a lot of run-on sentences that do have a distinct thread for the reader to follow for the story’s present, while also weaving in details about the characters’ pasts and futures. A more striking example of what I’m talking about is when Nadia’s family situation is laid out for the reader. Her desire to live independently leads to her family disowning her and in explaining this situation Hamid detours to inform the reader the longer-reaching consequences of this. Rather poignantly he explains how Nadia never sees her family again and each of them actually reflects back on the situation with pangs of regret later in life, too stubborn or lost as to how to reconcile it.
I did find this style ultimately a little double-edged, however. On the one hand, it was quite effective at fairly seamlessly conveying a lot of information to reader, whether about details of their city and culture or more intimate details about what characters are thinking or feeling, expressing what is rarely expressed through actions or words by people in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, it felt to me like the characters were constantly kept at arms-length. The way it was written made me a lot more conscious of being told a story by an omniscient narrator, rather than feeling absorbed enough in it that I feel like I’m in the room with the characters. I think this is made most apparent by the fact that actual dialogue, enclosed in quotations, is a little sparse throughout the story. Dialogue seemed reserved for moments where the story slows down to allow for a more intimate moment between characters before it accelerates once again.
Exit West is a great novel that blends romance, a little magic, and the very real refugee crisis that our world faces. Both protagonists are wonderfully represented, though I found myself much more sympathetic to Nadia’s struggles than Saeed’s. I do wish I was more intimately absorbed by the characters’ experiences, but there is still a great deal of care and craft that has gone into making them feel like very real people. It’s quite a page-turner as well, making it a book one could get through quite quickly, but will probably not soon forget.
My Rating: 4 out of 5