Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
US pub date: March 7, 2017
Sometimes you encounter a book that’s been so hyped up that you’re almost afraid to read it, because there’s no way it could meet or surpass your expectations, right? But then sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and let yourself believe the hype, and Exit West is the reason why, because this book was every bit as extraordinary as I’d been led to believe.
Exit West is a delicate yet hard-hitting exploration of the immigration experience, and of the strength of character required to leave your home and family, without any guarantee that where you’re going will be safer than what you’re leaving behind. Both hopeful and achingly sad, this short little novel is an absolute tour de force.
Saeed and Nadia, two young people from an unnamed country on the brink of civil war, meet and fall in love, even as they find themselves living in increasingly dangerous conditions as their city is torn apart. Meanwhile rumors start to crop up of doors that can transport you to another part of the world, but not without a price, and not without danger and uncertainty. Left with no choice, Saeed and Nadia pay for a passage through a door, and step through. These doors are not the point of the story, so those who were drawn to this novel for its promise of magical realism may be disappointed; they’re merely the abstract literary device that Mohsin Hamid chooses to employ in order to elevate themes of relocation, alienation, and the commonality of the human experience.
As Saeed and Nadia are bandied about to different locations across the globe, their relationship matures and regresses in accordance with each new circumstance they find themselves in. We follow their journey from the early moments of attraction to the quiet tedium of a love gone stale, as their relationship eventually, inevitably takes a turn that tugs at your heart as a reader, because even in a story characterized by fear and hunger and war and brutality – especially in a story characterized by these things – we want to believe that it’s possible to move forward, that it’s possible that love and normalcy can be retained. Devastating as this story is at times, it’s also not without hope, thanks in part to being grounded so firmly in the lives of these two compelling central characters, who grow and change as needed to survive, but who never become irrevocably hardened by the horrors they experience.
While there’s an undeniable universality to this story, this was a novel written for the times we’re living in, that speaks, most ostensibly, to the Syrian refugee crisis. We can’t turn a blind eye to the millions of families and individuals affected by this crisis, and Hamid uses his narrative to challenge us to inhabit a more compassionate and forgiving world. (More information on the Syrian refugee crisis here: x, x, x.)
Hamid’s prose is exquisite. I can’t conclude this review without mentioning that. This unconventional journey that he takes us on is chronicled in a writing style that’s appropriately wistful, poetic, subtle, and powerful. It’s exactly this effect of the writing paired with the story that makes this novel so unique and striking.
Part literary fiction, part romance, part war story, with a touch of magic, Exit West is the sort of book that has a lot to offer. But it’s also a quiet story, and rather than expecting to be blown away right out of the gate, you have to be willingly to immerse yourself in this novel and allow it to slowly begin to wash over you, until you’re completely submerged.