It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does (3-4).
This passage, written by the Mohsin Hamid early on in Exit West, grabbed my attention and pulled me into the story of Nadia and Saeed, who live in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. They meet at the above-mentioned night class and are immediately drawn to each other. Their relationship develops quickly against the backdrop of a country and city becoming more restrictive and dangerous by the day. While conditions worsen, Nadia and Saeed hear rumors of mysterious doors that appear in random places but lead to locations continents away. Though the military and the rebels guard many of these doors, others are still available if you know the right person and can pay the right price. Because this is a novel about both the reasons for and the act of immigration, we follow Nadia and Saeed as a door takes them away from their home city and on a journey to find a safe place to live.
This isn’t a novel of action and adventure (though you often fear for the main characters’ safety), it’s more an exploration of the act of leaving and arriving, and how migration changes both the places left and the places people escape to as well as the people leaving and arriving. In some ways, this is a good companion piece to The Underground Railroad because in both novels, the authors have created realistic stories with one simple element that is fantastical. Like Whitehead’s novel, Hamid’s Exit West is all about now, even as it is told in kind of a “timeless” way. Nadia and Saeed’s experiences as refugees at every point in their travels mirror experiences people are currently having as they attempt to leave countries like Syria and Sudan and make new lives in Toronto or Chicago or Brighton.
I was intrigued by the details that I had heard about this book from a Fresh Air interview Terri Gross did with Mohsin Hamid a few weeks ago. Also, I read and enjoyed (though I don’t know if enjoyed is the right word) one of Hamid’s earlier novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. All this is to say that I came into reading this primed for a novel that would make me think and feel (but mostly think) and I was not disappointed.