I’ve been meaning to read Mohsin Hamid for years now so when I found it right after it was added to my library’s collection, I took it as a sign. Sidenote: Can we talk about how beautiful this cover is? I can’t stop staring at it. The cover designer for the US version should be given a raise.
I knew Exit West had something to do with immigrants, but that was the extent of my knowledge going in. Turns out I was in for much, much more and to be honest, no plot summary is going to prepare you for this book. Too much is wrapped up in Hamid’s language.
Despite that, here are the basics. Nadia and Saeed are young adults in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. Nadia, defiantly independent, is pretending to be a widow so she can live her own life in her own apartment. Saeed is the only child of a loving couple. Saeed and Nadia find themselves drawn to each other, falling in love as their country grows more and more chaotic. They keep hearing whispers about secret doors that can transport them to a different part of the world. Eventually, they decide to try one of these doors.
“All these doors from who knows where were opening. And all sorts of strange people were around, people who looked more at home than she was, even the homeless ones who spoke no English. More at home, maybe because they were younger. And when she went out, it seemed that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates. Even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives. Because we can’t help it, we are all migrants through time.”
Magical realism is generally not my cup of tea, but I really liked the way it’s employed in Exit West. Hamid clearly didn’t want to tell the story of the process of migrating, he wanted to tell the story of what makes someone want to migrate and how they deal with it afterwards. By using tightly guarded magical doors to whisk characters quickly across the globe, Hamid didn’t get bogged down in the arduous details of immigration. Using this technique made it easier to explore the thoughts and lives of Nadia and Saeed as they try to build their lives together.
I loved Hamid’s writing style. His concise sentences were almost poetry in places, but not in a showy way. He has the ability to put words to unspoken ideas and feelings. This short little novel had a huge impact and I find myself thinking about some ideas put forth in it weeks after finishing it (surprise surprise, I’m super behind in my reviews). I highly recommend picking up this timely book, even if you don’t usually do magical realism.