Originally published August 2017
Every once in a while you come across a book that defies an easy explanation. Exit West is one of those reads.
Part metaphor, part love story, Mohsin Hamid’s tale of two young lovers taking a chance on a better life, survival, really, is touching and sad and beautiful all at once.
Nadia and Saeed first meet in a college classroom, engaged in bettering the somewhat unremarkable circumstances they find themselves in. Nadia, estranged from family and living on her own in an unnamed Middle Eastern city teeming with civil and military unrest, struggles hard to hold on to an independent way of life. Saeed, a young man still living with his mother and father, finds himself smitten with Nadia and pursues until she relents. The bond that carries them through to the end of the story is formed, and readers are then taken on a journey both physical and emotional.
The line that comes to mind in trying to explain Saeed and Nadia’s relationship is from, of all places, the Sex in the City movie when Sam breaks up with Smith, explaining that some of the best love stories don’t have to be long ones. The two protagonists aren’t just experiencing a change of scenery. For each, their values are challenged again and again, and that will play havoc with any relationship.
Exit West is a story tinged with fantasy in that readers need to suspend reality for the plot line to move forward. Interestingly, this was not nearly as hard as I suspected it may be when I first read about the book. Hamid’s matter-of-factness approach to doors that connect one part of the globe to another is so deft that I was left feeling as if it was a scenario that just was — nothing strange about it at all.
Mostly, though, Exit West examines not just the life cycle of a romantic relationship, but familial ones, cultural ones and the ones we have with ourselves. That, even if we stay in one place all our lives, in the end, we are all still migrants. And if we are all migrants, no one really is a native, no matter on what ground their feet are planted. Food for thought in the global circumstances of which we currently are experiencing.