A deeply profound and unique story Exit West by Mohsin Hamid examines the transitory nature of life and how that applies particularly to those forced to choose between the known reality of turmoil at home and the unknown potential abroad.
…but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.
It begins with Saeed and Nadia in their home country teetering on the brink of some unnamed conflict- the tension and early destruction is sensed but life carries on with some degree of normalcy; it is still acceptable for a young man to find joy and friendship and love with a young woman.
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days.
Saeed is traditional, cautious and chivalrous while Nadia is fiercely independent and guarded. Their friendship slowly progresses into something deeper as they share experiences and dialogue. Over time, they grow closer together, building a relationship as the world around them crumbles. Saeed’s family becomes ensnared in the rising violence and as the conflict in their city reaches a pinnacle they must choose whether to stay or go. Consumed by grief, Saeed’s father chooses to stay behind so Saeed and Nadia embark on the journey alone.
…but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.
A dubious meeting in a dark alley provides the passage Saeed and Nadia need- through a mysterious doorway into the blinding white light and out the other side into an unfamiliar country swollen with other travelers. This fantastical metaphor reveals the heart of this story. The ease through with Saeed and Nadia travel through the doors is in striking contrast to the process refugees undergo today. However, the living after the arrival is not quite as simple. In each locale they struggle to find safety and refuge, basic necessities like shelter and food. Sometimes they stay and other times they seek out another door, another country and a new future. This daily uncertainty begins to erode Saeed’s and Nadia’s relationship and they are forced to examine their current situation in the context of their love.
To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted, and await its fate, if only for a while.
As with all things, the doors attract opposition and eventually the travelling comes with greater inherent risks. Some doors are no longer safe to travel through as captors await the arrivals while others are heavily guarded or destroyed. However, the travelers are resilient and their persistence perpetuates the production of new doors. Hamid takes this opportunity to meditate on the present truth of this scenario.
Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done.
Simple, fluid prose and elegantly strong metaphors provide accessibility to the deep significance of this novel. Exit West is almost deceiving in its initial simplicity as the narratives of Saeed and Nadia transcend generations but the purpose of their story and what it represents is exceedingly contemporary.
We are all migrants through time.
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A review copy of this title was provided by Penguin Books via Netgalley.