Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West has been on my radar since it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017. When it showed up on the shortlist for this year’s International DUBLIN Literary Award, I figured it was time to see what all the fuss was about.
In an unnamed city in a long-simmering war with itself, Nadia and Saeed meet at a night class. At first cautious in their romance, they are thrown together when the fighting intensifies and Saeed’s mother is blown apart in her car. Saeed convinces Nadia to move in with him and his father for her safety, and she agrees, though she won’t yet agree to marry him.
At the same time, doors are opening around the world, doors where one walks through and ends up in a completely different place on earth. Refugees begin pouring through from places at war to places of relative safety, creating a reason for hope on one side but a crisis on the other. Saeed’s father convinces Saeed and Nadia that it’s time for them to escape the hopeless situation in their city, insisting they leave him behind since his life was essentially over when his wife died. They agree and escape through a door to Mykonos, the first of many leaps as they try to find a new home.
There’s more to the story, but that’s the basic idea. I was captivated at first with this story that reminded me of literary heavyweights like Saramago and Camus, but I had a big problem with the doors. As a metaphor, they’re too on-the-nose. As a fantasy element, they’re out of place and unearned. There’s nothing else fantastical about the world, so it feels like an intellectual exercise instead of an illumination of the problems facing migrants and refugees. There’s one point where a conflict between nativists and migrants abruptly ends with no explanation and pivots immediately to Hamid’s unrealistic Utopian solution to world peace, and that’s where he completely lost me. There’s a huge gap between problem and solution, as if an entire second act were omitted, and Hamid’s long dénouement is unearned because he George Costanza-ed his way through the hard part. If you want me to follow you all the way to the end, you’d better show me the way rather than tell me to close my eyes and poof! we’re magically there, as easily as walking through a door. I call bullshit.