♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ . 5 s t a r s
When Saeed shyly asks Nadia, a woman in a niqab for a cup of coffee after class, she refuses, hops atop a bike and drives away, leaving him stunned. But that was just the beginning of their story. Soon, Nadia and Saeed form a tight bond, spending their days smoking weed, talking about nothings and falling in love. But the city that they live in is soon overtaken by religious militants. Their lives are plagued with war, death and fear, and Nadia and Saeed decide to escape, even though they don’t really want to leave their home behind. Doors are popping up all over the world – doors that transport you from country to country, and soon, Nadia and Saeed find a door that lets them escape. But as now-refugees, they have other crises to face.
Told in a subtle amalgamation of contemporary and fabulism, Exit West reads eerily similar to daily news, our social media feeds and the issues we hear about almost constantly. Its scope regarding the topics it covers is vast without ever feeling like it’s doing too much all at once. From religious militants overthrowing governments, war-ravaged cities that once used to be like yours or mine, human beings in their diverse humanity fleeing from death and loss, the refugee crises, the concept of borders in an increasingly globalized world, xenophobia and fear of migrants in Western countries (specifically the United Kingdom), as well as tackling issues of politics, internalized prejudices, differences in practicing the same religion, how people may be driven to terrorism and the complexities of the lives of displaced peoples. And believe it or not, it tackles each and every issue brilliantly, expertly while also focusing them in a sharp context. This is a book about all of these issues, sure, but ultimately, it’s a book about a man and a woman. Saeed and Nadia. Their love, their bond, how it changes, how it perseveres, and how it threatens to falter.
Saeed and Nadia’s origin city is unnamed, though Mohsin Hamid has said that he based it largely on the city of Lahore, Pakistan. As someone who’s also spent most of her life living in Lahore, I saw parts of my home city reflected throughout the pages, and the dystopian premise that in the future, it would be at war, my friends and family scattered, the buildings I used to frequent destroyed, life as I knew it stilled? That’s a terrifying concept, and Exit West does a brilliant job of terrifying you both on a macro and micro level. Because upon further inspection, the unnamed city could be any city, which means that the events could happen to several cities at the same time, regardless of where they are. The problems are no longer isolated incidents, but global catastrophes… and the burden of recognizing that it could be the reader’s own city – whether that’s Hyderabad, Dhaka, Jakarta, Mumbai, Lahore – is what makes the novel so powerful. It’s specific enough for you to think about these critical issues, but also vague enough that it forces you not to dissociate, to imagine yourself in the lives of these people.
“It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class 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.”
The sign of a good novel like this is that it covers hard-hitting topics without taking a side; thus, it becomes a book that forces everyone, from each side of the debate, to think critically, and to consider a perspective you may not have considered before. It becomes a nuanced, complex discussion within itself, rather than a prejudiced agenda that’s preaching you to feel a certain way, though the general message does ultimately shine through. I don’t want to give anything away, so let me stick to just one example. There’s a discussion about how rich countries take in a small number of refugees, despite having the resources to support them while data shows that ten countries host 50% of the world’s refugee population, and these countries are far worse-off than the vast majority of countries in the West.
The question of why this is plagues many people in the developing world, including me; places like Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan don’t have a lot to give, but they house the most refugees. Why doesn’t the developed world, the more privileged world, share the load? It’s a valid, important question – a question that you, unless you have lived in a developing country, might never have even considered, while for many of us, it’s a pervasive thought in our heads. And it’s a question that’s touched upon in the book brilliantly. Note:
“… the doors to richer destinations, were heavily guarded, but the doors in, the doors from poorer places, were mostly left unsecured, perhaps in the hope that people would go back to where they came from – although almost no one ever did – or perhaps because there were simply too many doors from too many poorer places to guard them all.”
Here, Hamid touches on the hegemony of wealth in this so-called global society; much like in countries themselves, the global stage is set apart by classes. And as any class system works, the poorest ultimately do the heaviest lifting, and while the rich get richer, the poor continue to grow poorer. But, at the same time, Hamid offers the opposing perspective – perhaps this is the case because poor countries don’t have much to lose, and so the fear of losing something isn’t as stark as it is in places that have plenty to lose. That was a perspective that I hadn’t considered before, and although I disagree with the sentiment itself, I understand it a little better.
I went off on a tangent there, but perhaps the fact that I did will tell you how much there is in this book to unpack and analyze. It’s not a long book at all – it’s just over 200 pages, and the text isn’t too small, and chances are that you’ll fly through it in one or two sittings (and I believe that’s the best way to read a book like this), but you won’t realize what hit you until you’re near the end. You won’t realize the extent of your investment in these characters’ lives, that you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, tears probably dripping from the end of your nose to a page filled with paragraphs written with single sentences, and only after the magic fully digs into your skin do you realize how moved you are by the quiet intensity of it. The silent power of Hamid’s writing, how he says so many things by saying one, how he makes you feel so many things with one glance, one movement from a character. This book’s sheer humanity will leave you dumbfounded – because ultimately, that’s what this book is about. Humanity. And the potential loss of it, if the dim lights we see occasionally are also extinguished.
Public groping, war (some, but not much, graphic violence), some drug use