Date finished: April 7th 2017
In strange, uncertain and dangerous times, literature seems to react and become more important, relevant and wise than usual. A lot of people have predicted that a wealth of great stories will be produced in response to the divisions that have begun to wreak havoc post-2016, and Mohsin Hamid has produced one such work.
Exit West takes place in an unnamed city in which Saeed and Nadia live. After meeting they begin to fall in love, but outside turmoil awaits as militants and the government battle for control of the city. As the city is taken violence and death reign supreme. Saeed and Nadia hear rumours of strange doors that lead to far away places, safer than the city. Together, the couple decide to seek out such a door, but moving on brings its own challenges.
Hamid’s breezy prose, elegant in its simplicity, is evident here as it was in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but there’s something more intangible and ephemeral about Exit West, the long, breathy sentences recalling oral traditions of storytelling, giving an archaic, almost biblical quality to the text. This simultaneously intrigues, setting the work apart from others, and makes it difficult to hold on to anything, at times feeling as though the story is slipping through your fingers.
Exit West successfully evokes the dystopia of our time: the shattered lives of refugees living a life the polar opposite of our own, fleeing desperate situations by perilous means to places that may offer precious little more safety than their original homes. At times, the novel can feel like The Road as the struggle to survive impersonalises all things, but Hamid’s prose is pregnant with a hope that McCarthy’s work was devoid of.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the novel is brought about through the little vignettes that elucidate the effect of the black doors and migration on other people’s lives, completely separate from the protagonists and story at large. These unnamed, transient, peripheral characters’ stories and life events are strangely wonderful to read; snapshots of lives heard on the wind.
An ephemeral work of contemporary literature, Exit West is a beautiful portrayal of migration, showing that we are all migrants in some way; a compelling tale of love, friendship and survival against the odds. The tale is testament to Hamid’s ability as a storyteller and his position as one of the foremost Middle Eastern writers of the modern age.