Mohsin Hamid has created something wonderful with this endearing, and perfectly formed short novel. What an evocative and striking way to discuss refugees, ideological war, tribalism, and love. This book broke through my exterior barriers and nurtured something tender inside of me. It seems for the most part, people are really the same, and we all want the same things regardless of where we come from: security, companionship, and the means to better ourselves. The things we’ve lived through, our experiences, coalesce and form us into who we are, shaping the basis of what we might become.
“We are all migrants through time.”
Windows and doors feature heavily in Exit West. The dangers of the ongoing war between the militants and the government in our protagonists’ unnamed middle eastern country, enter through windows. As the war grows more serious, every glass pane holds within it the potential to become lacerating shrapnel. The ongoing fighting perverts everything into something it was never intended to be. Windows into shrapnel. Streets into battlegrounds. Characters are killed accidentally through the glass windshields of their cars by misguided munitions. Windows are boarded up, taped up, or obscured for security, limiting the light available indoors.
Doors are where the magical aspect of the story comes into play. Most of the time doors operate as normal, allowing passage from one room to another, from outside to inside, or inside to out. But sometimes, at seemingly random and unpredictable moments, certain doors have started leading elsewhere, to adjacent doors in other lands. Offering a means of escape from local dangers, and passage to the relative safety and wealth of the West. Doors like these are opening up all over the world, and just as the relative size of the world was flattened and reduced dramatically with the invention of the internet, these doors literally fold and flatten the space between the Eastern and Western, Southern and Northern corners of the world. The myriad ways in which this change impacts the societies in the novel was the most interesting aspect of the story for me.
As the effective distance between continents diminishes, the realities of the world that were once far away from the wealthy and fortunate, were once nebulous and ethereal to them, are made vividly real and close. Travel, particularly meeting and interacting with those unlike ourselves, is said to be one of the best ways to overcome existing prejudices and preconceived notions about those from human tribes different from our own. With these doors that have started connecting us, everyone, everywhere has now come into contact with several individuals unlike themselves. Millions begin fleeing from the poorer nations to the richer ones, and this starts to cause a rapid change and instability among the natives of the richer lands.
“Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.”
This change is met with a variety of responses: fear, compassion, intrigue, curiosity, hope, etc. What Exit West does so well is give a glimpse into the daily realities of refugees fleeing from war torn countries, the sorts of terrors they can be running from, the sort of hope they often subside on. It broke my heart, and I think will go a long way toward making me a better, more compassionate person.
In addition to the wonderful social commentary, Exit West is also a love story of the highest caliber, a magically real fairy tale, unafraid to shy away from the realities of love, loss, and the changes quickened or postponed by devastating circumstances. The relationship between Saeed and Nadia grows and expands as the narrative progresses. They are one thing to each other in the beginning and another thing entirely by the end. They meet as students of higher education in their country of origin, and I found it interesting to compare and contrast their story with that of a western couple meeting for the first time at a college in America. In a lot of ways, the extreme situations they find themselves in, possibly hold them together for longer than would be ideal had they been born into different circumstances.
As someone who has never had a similar experience, I found the ways in which Nadia was able to insulate and protect herself in a culture she felt somewhat apart from, particularly interesting. The ways in which a system sometimes inadvertently makes available tools with which we can protect ourselves from that system is a fascinating area to examine. I think it speaks toward the ingenuity of humans to utilize everything that is available to us to better our prospects and secure the future we desire.
“He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing.”
All of my friends who have previously read Exit West specifically mentioned to me that the ending crushed them, brought them to tears or reduced them into a weeping, bumbling mess. It didn’t have that effect on me at all. Instead, I found it unbelievably beautiful, and I sat in contemplative awe, marveling at how perfect the ending was, that the author had pulled it off so elegantly. How in retrospect it was the only possible real ending, and the one I hoped the book would arrive at. It was an evocative, emotionally satisfying scene to finish the story.
To me, Exit West is overall, a hopeful novel, but it touches on deadly serious themes and the brutalities of human existence. I found it moving and beautifully expressed. It is a book that I plan on revisiting many times throughout my life.