I found Exit West by Mohsin Hamid through two different sources. First, it was on President Obama’s 2017 recommended reading list. This was already more than enough incentive for me to start reading, but it was also on NPR’s Best Books of 2017, which has become one of my favorite sources for finding new books. Before I began reading, I only had the vague notion that this was a story about refugees, which seems especially relevant in today’s world. I was expecting a humanizing story of the danger and struggle refugees have as they run from violence and war–looking for a safe place for their family.
Exit West was a humanizing portrait of two refugees, but it was also not at all what I expected. It is one of the few books that I might get much more out of if I read it again. I was very impressed by Hamid’s writing. It is very clear, simple, and unemotional–even in the most dramatic of scenes. It made me think about refugees in a different way, and it is definitely worth reading.
I came into this book knowing almost nothing about the plot and with very few expectations. It was a good way to read the book, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone else–so it’s best to skip the rest of this review if you’re interested in reading the book.
Exit West begins in an unnamed country in a predominantly Muslim country. There is rebellion and violence, but the worst of it has not yet reached the city of our protagonists. Saeed and Nadia are normal college students. They meet in class and quickly fall for each other in a sweet and relatable way. Saeed is the more religious of the two–even though he doesn’t wear a full beard and she does wear a robe. But it isn’t long before the rebellion makes its way to their home. It was chilling when their mobile phones stop working without warning, and the two are suddenly unable to talk to each other. Beyond losing basic communication, there is suddenly danger everywhere and tragedy strikes them personally, more than once.
As the danger increases, Saeed and Nadia decide that they need to flee the country–leaving everything they know behind. There are rumors that there are doors that open to countries of safety and opportunity. Risking everything, they pay a contact for passage through one of these doors. If the rebels discover Saeed and Nadia are trying to get away, they will be killed. Eventually Saeed and Nadia are led to one of these doors and they find themselves in Mykonos, Greece.
I have to interject here that it took me a little while to understand what was going on with the “doors” in this story. At first, I thought Hamid was being fanciful because he didn’t want to describe the travel of Saeed and Nadia. I found it kind of irritating because wouldn’t perilous travel be a large part of their story? I didn’t realize that Hamid had actually gone off in a completely different direction, and that he was imagining what the world would be like if there were doors that simply opened to other countries–creating porous boundaries between the oppressed and the affluent, the endangered and the privileged.
After some struggle, Nadia befriends a woman in Mykonos who shows her a new door. Saeed and Nadia decide to see what’s beyond. They end up in a mansion in London, England, with new refugees showing up every day. As the number of doors increase, the number of refugees increase, and the reaction against them grows. Violence and the threat of violence increases, reaching a crisis point. England eventually grows towards tolerance of this new reality. Some kind of equanimity is found when the country sets up programs that puts refugees to work building housing for themselves on the outskirts of London.
But despite the relative stability, Saeed and Nadia decide to move on when they discover another door. They end up in Marin, California, building a shack of tin on the hillside. The two continue to grow and learn about themselves as the entire world adjusts to a world without basic boundaries.
Saeed and Nadia are believable and understandable characters with considerable depth. I cared about them as they moved throughout the world. In addition, the surprise (to me) twist of the fantastical doors forces the Western reader to consider the plight of refugees in a different way. I’m afraid that I’m having a hard time describing this book, and it is much better than I am making it sound. This review does not do credit to such an interesting and original book.
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