There are some books I read and don’t think about much afterwards. They just don’t leave a lasting impact.
But “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid stayed with me.
“Exit West” tells the story of refugees Nadia and Saeed, who fall in love as their nameless country teeters on the brink of civil war. When the situation worsens, Nadia and Saeed step through one of the many magical doors that have begun popping up around the world. The doors have the power to instantly transport them somewhere else, but as doors are discovered, they’re policed to stop the migration.
By including this element of magical realism in his book, Hamid condenses the refugee’s often harrowing journey into a single instant. He chooses to instead give his time and attention to the moments before and after Nadia and Saeed step through one of the doors. We see war invade their country. We see conditions deteriorate until they feel stepping through a mystical door into the unknown is their only choice. And we see the evolution of their relationship as war hastens it along and, later, as they try to rebuild their lives somewhere else.
While Nadia and Saeed are the focal point of the novel, Hamid does weave in the stories of other nameless characters, showing us this story is bigger than any two people. This idea of connection and connectedness is at the heart of the novel. Among the vignettes about other refugees, Hamid includes the story of one woman who has lived in the same house all her life. Even she shares the refugees’ sense of displacement as she realizes the world has gradually changed around her. As Hamid so eloquently puts it, “We are all migrants through time.”
We’re also all connected by loss, a realization Saeed has towards the end of the novel. While the issues the novel takes up are weighty, Saeed’s cautious hope is something to hold on to. In one of the most poignant passages in the book, Hamid writes,
“...we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world.”
Some readers may be turned off by Hamid’s long and winding sentences, but it’s passages like these that make me feel I could read “Exit West” again and again and again.
To build a better world in which refugees are treated with compassion and empathy, I suggest everyone pick up a copy of “Exit West.”
Reviewer Adison Godfrey is a graduate assistant at WPSU.