Exit West, finalist for the Man Booker Prize, is a door to the world of refugees and migrants seeking a better life—it is Mohsin Hamid’s compelling read that manages to find the space between expansive journeys and intimate moments.
Saeed and Nadia are students in a class on corporate branding in a nameless country, teetering on the cusp of war. Much of what appears in Exit West is unbranded—nameless persons from nameless locations, nameless languages, nameless religions. In any other book, this might not work, but in a story that is primarily about two people, it allows for a selective focus or tilt shift. It allows their story to be, in some form, any story.
Saeed and Nadia are brought together by attraction; they stay together out of loyalty. At home, the sound of war becomes the playlist of their every day life. The city they know is slowly stripped of everything that made it home. When it is apparent that staying means dying at the hands of militants—facing a type of apocalypse—they decide to flee.
That journey is not the immigrant sojourning prominent in the news—risky travels through war torn lands, brave border crossings, or overcrowded boats that capsize in turbulent seas. Rather, they hear of opaque doors, passageways that transport one instantly across vast spaces to other places. It is here that Exit West employs a subtle magical realism that exploits the fear of uncertainty.
Saeed and Nadia are not alone. With every exit to a new land, they converge with the crowded rooms of others seeking refuge (stories tragic and hopeful), the resistance of nativists, and the difficulty of living with others who do not share their culture. Their story takes them to Greece, to England, and finally to the San Francisco Bay Area. But they are not just seeking safety, they are seeking happiness.
Nadia is not religious and doesn’t pray, but she wears a conservative “flowing black robe.”
“If you don’t pray,” Saeed asks her, “why do you wear it?”
“So men don’t fuck with me,” Nadia tells him.
And this encapsulates who Nadia is. She wants to open up, but she is largely self-contained and independent.
Saeed is nominally religious—a dedicated son—but progressively finds increased devotion as an anchor to his former life in an uncertain future.
Hamid’s story is sparse on certain details and opts for narrative over specific dialogue. We are frequently granted access to thoughts and feelings more than we are to words. It makes sense to me that there are so many nameless things and even a nameless plot device. The story doesn’t hinge specifically on Rohingyas or Syrians. It is a universal story. Human beings want a safe place to live regardless of where they are from. Nativists frequently react violently no matter which country they live in. Love is complicated regardless of our circumstances.
As we are told, “people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now.”
Exit West beautifully and passionately explores what it means to be human, a shared nature we frequently deny to nameless others that grace our televisions. It is a timely story that’s not set in a time, and which is ultimately timeless.