EXIT WEST is a difficult book for me to review because I know at least three people who disliked it and expected me to hate it too. But I love the novel the more I think about it. In a way, I have a love-hate relationship with Exit West, but it’s mostly love.
I’ll begin by clarifying that I think this book is not for everyone, and I can tell you Exit West is not the book to read if you’re looking for a love story with war as the backdrop. While Hamid employs the delicacy of a young love as his framework, this novel is anything but, it’s brutal and edgy, and their love is tricky and difficult (especially for Saeed).
Nadia and Saeed meet at an evening class and quickly get drawn to each other, but very soon war breaks out in their city ( the exact location is undisclosed but the easy guess is India or Pakistan). As things get violent, Nadia moves in with Saeed and his Dad, and eventually the pair leave the father behind to find a safer place to live in. This is where things get interesting; there are black doors all over the world (foreshadowed earlier in the novel by glimpses of people around the world who appear in places where they’re clearly strangers). These black doors transport refugees to a different location, in an instant, thus obliterating the weeks and months of travel that refugees are forced to endure. I found this concept so interesting, because despite the ease of instantaneous travel, refugees couldn’t find the peace they were looking for. Nadia and Saeed passed through those black doors many times, staying longer each time, unable to find the peace the black doors promised and signified.
The pair encountered other people who either used them or made them restless and afraid. Hamid also explores the reactions of governments towards the refugee crisis; do they welcome them or take a hostile approach? How do the locals respond to the crisis? Will the refugees ever find a safe place, a home?
Hamid’s writing style flows brilliantly and it offers a lot to think. I did feel a bit bored at a few points, partly due to the long sentences, but mostly because the premise of the book was too similar to another book I’d recently read, The Book of Gold Leaves by Mirza Waheed. So until the black doors swooped in, I felt like I was having a literary deja vu.
To briefly compare the two novels – Waheed’s novel had merits but unlike Hamid’s Exit West, it was overwritten. Both novels explored the idea of two people falling in love in war torn region, and how their love is tested with time and obstacles. I felt Hamid’s exploration was more complex and realistic. It was also unconventional and it tested the mettle of traditional lifestyles in the Indian subcontinent, and how it doesn’t really hold up anymore, at least not in secret.
Nadia, for example, covers herself in a traditional garment (the abaya), but only to protect herself from men. She’s not religious and lacks traditional beliefs. I found this to be very interesting because although she manages to create this extra layer of protection, in one instance in a busy crowd, she’s unable to avoid being sexually harassed. I also found her disguise to be really realistic; the face she wears for the world is a safe choice, and I know many youth who appear traditional but don’t actually believe in it.
I liked reading about Saeed’s very realistic struggle with praying, and his insistence on holding on to the moral values passed on to him from his parents. There’s a particular passage towards the end of novel that describes Saeed’s act of prayer as the only way to touch his parents again. So poignant and realistic.
One other thing I liked was the obscurity surrounding the exact setting of Nadia and Saeed’s home. By keeping such a detail vague, Hamid succeeds in presenting the idea that a refugee crisis could originate anywhere, it doesn’t really matter where it started. What matters is that war tears homes and families apart. It could happen anywhere. This is further supported by the refugees from other countries, like Nigeria, that Nadia and Saeed encounter.
I’d recommend Exit West to all, but especially to those who are emotionally removed from the current refugee crisis, those from the western world for whom the refugee crisis is an important event happening in “the other side of the world”. This is a relevant book that requires you to look beyond the words on the page.
“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”- Exit West
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