Synopsis (Goodreads): In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.
Exit West follows these characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
I figured this would be a difficult book to review because once I finished it, I was very much neither here nor there…but hey, you never know if you don’t try.
Mohsin Hamid tells a story the way my grandfather used to – there is no sense of hurry at all. He draws out the narrative slowly, naturally building up the tension and suspense that keeps you turning the pages. It was this evocative writing style that so appealed to me, especially in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but it just didn’t work as well in Moth Smoke, and now Exit West.
Our protagonists Nadia and Saeed are drawn together in a city caught up in a civil war, by virtue of which their relationship is forced to develop faster than normal. As their situation becomes increasingly violent and unsafe, they realise they have no choice but to try and find one of the ‘doors’ that have been popping up everywhere, allowing people to step through and escape to safer destinations.
Side note. When these doors first came up, I have to admit I was a little confused – what was this foray into magical realism? On reflection however, you realise that by niftily introducing these doors, Mohsin Hamid keeps the focus of the story less about the journey away from the conflict zones and more on what the migrant or refugee experiences once they arrive at a ‘safer’ place. The writing evokes a good sense of the uncertainty surrounding the life of migrants, and its transient nature.
The other positive in the book was how well Mohsin Hamid depicted the slow unravelling of the romantic relationship between Nadia and Saeed, but having said that, I never really managed to identify with either character, so I read about the dying relationship with a somewhat detached frame of mind. While I empathised with Nadia’s original reasons for wearing a full burqa even though she was not religious, I couldn’t understand why she insisted on continuing to wear it when she no longer had to. It did cross my mind that maybe the author’s focus for the novel was to focus especially on the migrant and refugee experience and how it could impact relationships that were forged under such intense and uncertain circumstances, and that therefore character development was secondary – just a thought.
In sum – good writing and an interesting storyline, but I felt it was somewhat overhyped and I definitely wouldn’t put it at the top of your to-read pile.