Listened to as an audiobook, read by the author. And what a calm and straightforward voice! I can’t remember why Exit West came on my radar (I think I saw someone talking about it on Twitter?) but in any case, it was well worth the read. A story tied to real-world pain but with a fantasy element to string the story along. Does this magical realism entirely work? Mileage may vary, but overall I think the novel was successful in what it set out to do.
Exit West follows the story of Saeed and Nadia, in the early stages of a relationship within an unnamed country/city that is on the brink of civil war. As the two navigate their relationship with one another, the violent realties of their lives is inescapable, and inevitably begins to inform their relationship and how much they try to hold on to this good piece of their lives, changing as their situation requires. But amidst all this violence, they hear of doors: doors that will lead to another unknown place. Following these doors, Nadia and Saeed jump from place to place as refugees, searching for a new place to call home and experiencing what it now means to be a refugee in a place that doesn’t want you there.
All of the events of Saeed and Nadia’s story are also juxtaposed with vignettes of violent events occurring in other parts of the world, and how these may be related to the life of immigrants as our two protagonists now are. Maybe there is no complete safe place for anyone? Maybe certain views show up everywhere, despite what we may want to think.
The overall course of the novel is strong, showing us a story that is familiar, but also deeply personal: it not only touches upon the realities of people fleeing unrest in their countries, but also on the levels to which people adapt as they are required to. There is a resiliency to the human spirit, but also a dire need to hold on to relationships and some semblance of routine to keep a sense of humanity and hope that life can feel grounded, even if in the slightest ways. It makes us understand that no matter how scary the unknown is, the hope that it may be something better is all it takes for people to take a terrifying plunge. But how things even out so quickly at the end of this novel felt like a true fantasy. Perhaps a wish for resolution, after a time of unrest. And I guess that is something to really hang on to in difficult times, as we are all experiencing right now (whether for the first time or not).
But what about the doors? This seems to be the only magical element in the story, so why include it? It could simply be seen as a crutch to jump around to the different settings quickly and without a fuss, but maybe it is being used here because we have seen the struggles and dangers that refugees make in our real lives before. In fact, we continue to see them every day. By eliminating this factor, the question is posed: do you still care? People already turn their noses up to immigrants fleeing war-torn areas, despite the fact that they took huge risks in trying to do so. In this novel, however, we see the reasons for leaving (and there is still danger in crossing over) but without all the graphic details, and we are still situated to care about Nadia and Saeed, and all the other immigrant’s struggles to find a new life in unfamiliar places.
Ultimately, I found Exit West to be a great read, as it was straightforward, honest, personal, and meaningful in its intent. It felt like a conversation, just asking me to open myself up to not just listen, but to really hear it whenever I plugged in for a new chapter. Yet as I have felt a few times before, this feels like one of those books that will be unread by those who really should be the ones hearing what it has to say. Such is always the way.