Exit West, Mohsin Hamid's new novel, is remarkably germane. The story of Nadia and Saeed, a young couple forced to flee a collapsing city, is on one level a love story, relaying the journey that a couple takes through their relationship, but more than that, it is the narrative of what it means to be a refugee, the toll taken by the severity of the act of leaving one’s country.
Realism in Exit West has a little give to it. Nadia and Saeed leave from an unnamed country in the midst of a civil war, their exit provided through an actual door. These doors of escape can appear anywhere and lead all over. The one though which Nadia and Saeed leave is in a dental office, “the blackness of a door that ha[d] once led to a supply cabinet.” The means of flight here might bring to mind other recent books where real-life or historical events are viewed through a slightly skewed reality, such as Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. And like any other channel of departure for a refugee, these doors/portals guarantee no safe exit. One is left to meet whatever is on the other side unknowingly. The use of these doors that can pop up anywhere accentuates the discordant experience that refugees must face, to forsake one world so suddenly and be born again in another “for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
While some of Exit West exists in this semi-realistic sphere, much of it is all too real. Technology and social media play a significant role in keeping people connected. While their city is being destroyed around them, Nadia and Saeed perpetuate their relationship through texts and phone calls. The role of social media is so vital to human connection, both on a personal level and on a global level. Hamid reminds us of the clash of these worlds, the virtual versus the real. “But even now the city’s freewheeling virtual world stood in stark contrast to the day-to-day lives of most people, to those of young men, and especially of young women, and above all children who went to sleep unfed but could see on some small screen people in foreign lands preparing and consuming and even conducting food fights with feasts of such opulence that the very fact of their existence boggled the mind.” When mobile service vanishes, much human connection is severed.
The passage through doors “was both like dying and like being born,” and we understand, when Nadia and Saeed take this passage, how closely Hamid’s magical doors hew to a true refugee experience. Upon approaching her exit, Nadia is “struck by its darkness, its opacity, the way it did not reveal what was on the other side, and also did not reflect what was on this side, and so felt equally like a beginning and an end.”
Eventually, this young couple find themselves in a house of refugees, people from all over the world whose cultures and languages differ greatly but who are thrust together in a common experience. The friction of this situation creates a friction between Nadia and Saeed and highlights the strain that leaving behind the known for the unknown can take. “The only divisions that mattered now were between those who sought the right of passage and those who would deny them passage.”
Exit West gives a glimpse of what it is to be a refugee and what it is to refuse refugees, the shame that comes from being displaced and the struggle to maintain a feeling of humanity. The novel is only strengthened by the fact that Hamid never gives a name to the country from which Nadia and Saeed escape. He peppers his book with tales, some almost fairy-tale like in quality, of other travelers. On occasion points of departure are named, but not always. Combining this with the unusual form of deliverance for all these refugees underscores the universality of the refugee experience.
In an interview on Literary Hub, Hamid said, “I wanted this to be a novel about refugees that reminded us we’re all refugees. A little namelessness and bending of physics went a long way.”
Exit West is filled with strikingly eloquent passages on religion and prayer, parenthood, love, and of course, the jarring difficulty of becoming a displaced person. To read it is to be submersed in this beauty and brutality all at once.