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‘Exit West’: A Surreal Look at Relevant Issues

4 Stars

Exit West cover
Mohsin Hamid weaves a powerful and relevant narrative in “Exit West.” It claims fame as a “Most Anticipated Book” by Buzzfeed, Time, and the Washington Post, a well-deserved title. Amidst their unnamed country’s political turmoil, the main characters Nadia and Saeed find each other and fall into deep, complicated love. As militants take over their city and bombs destroy houses, the two lovers try to understand the nuances of their relationship. Soon they begin to hear whispered rumors of doors that lead to faraway cities heavily guarded by officers. This initially seems too good to be true, but Nadia and Saeed decide to try their luck and escape. Thus begins their travel, continually westward, to find a new home.

Hamid creates a plot relevant to today’s global issues, yet many seemingly important details are left out. Although the discussion of immigration, refugees, faith, and the constant fighting between “natives and migrants” imply controversial subjects, the language of “Exit West” keeps the novel from being about a specific crisis. Hamid never clarifies which country his characters are originally from or what religion they practice or what language they speak. Although certain practices—such as prayers throughout the day and women wearing robes—seem to imply that the two are Muslim, this is not explicitly stated. This ambiguity might make it hard to contextualize the deeper messages of a novel about race and religion, but it actually makes it more applicable. This vagueness also sheds light on a particular refugee experience, while suppressing any prejudices a reader may have that could influence their ability to sympathize with those who must flee their homes. Its obscurity allows this text to be read in many different ways, depending on what global issue it is being compared to.

The writing style Hamid employs is brilliant. He deals with complicated themes—such as attempting to feel at home in a foreign country while knowing that returning to your homeland is not an option—yet uses simple and approachable language to do so: “He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing.” While he fleshes out his ideas, Hamid makes sure not to lose his reader with convoluted sentences. Throughout the novel, there is a striking juxtaposition between the beautiful and the horrid. In one moment, Hamid describes the love Saeed feels as he looks at Nadia, and in the next he illustrates her neighbor’s brutal death.

Hamid delivers his poignant messages in beautiful but concise ways. Often the entire sentiment of a chapter can be summed up in one sentence. As Saeed and Nadia leave the country they have grown up in, they struggle to say their final goodbyes. The deep sorrow is not fully expressed until the thought-provoking line, “for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

The use of doors gives the narrative a surreal quality and artistic style. Although clearly not realistic, the use of doors as a means of transportation to cities across the globe is within the realm of the possible for the characters of the novel. The doors create conflict by facilitating immigration. As large waves of immigrants of all sorts of nationalities flood into cities like London, problems arise when the “natives” feel hostile. Although a great plot device, the doors also serve to give the book an imaginative flair, adding a unreal essence quality to a situation grounded in reality. Saeed and Nadia’s ability to traverse the globe gives the novel many different beautiful backdrops as the two lovers try to understand themselves and each other away from their homeland.

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The succinct style with which Hamid writes and his poignant messages allow “Exit West” to live up to the hype surrounding its release. By balancing the surreality of the doors with the ambiguity surrounding the characters’ identity, Hamid paints a picture of a refugee experience that could reflect those of many immigrants today.

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