Each time Mohsin Hamid’s name comes up, readers automatically refer to his brilliant first novel Moth Smoke, that captured the travails of the urban youth in the vibrant city of Lahore. Hamid’s subsequent books- The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How To Get Rich in Dying Asia and Discontent and Its Civilisation- didn’t captivate readers as much as Moth Smoke did. Readers were left disappointed as they would have high expectations from Hamid.
It was with that same sense of dread that I started reading Exit West. I wanted this book to be a great one. I wanted to catch that spark which I caught in Moth Smoke. I wanted to be captivated and mesmerised by the characters and the story that only Hamid can weave so imaginatively.
Did he succeed with Exit West? The answer is a resounding YES!
The novel starts off with the meeting of Saeed and Nadia, the novel’s two main characters. We are introduced to them in a city which remains unknown throughout the novel (and one of the mini-frustrations readers may have). We can gather that there is a great turmoil in the city, with bombings, public executions and new laws being announced. We find out they are refugees.
The initial chapters set up the characters, with a description that allows the readers to form a visual of what Saeed (he has a beard, but not a full beard) and Nadia (she grew up loving arts) look like. Their meetings amidst the chaos form the set-up of the novel, and one essentially realises that Exit West is essentially a love story. They lose their phones, thus losing contact. They meet in a Chinese restaurant. Saeed wears the black abaya to meet Nadia secretly at her place. They like each other and have an attraction, but don’t take the relationship to the next level.
But this is not just any love story. Things start to become a little fantastical when they discover that there are certain black doors that are cropping up at odd locations. These black doors provide a portal to another country altogether. So their adventure begins as they end up in Greece, Dubai, London and California. They encounter various situations that test their relationships.
Ultimately, what forms the crux of the novel is how Saeed and Nadia handle these situations based on their love for each other, which is tested to the extreme, leading to an unexpected twist turning the whole book around.
Hamid has written rather well, even though some of his sentences are so long, they form an entire paragraph. The dialogue is minimal and vocabulary has been kept to a fairly easy level. I was able to read the book in two days. Having said that, upon finishing the book, I was left with a ‘what the heck just happened?’ feeling. I took a day to process what the book was about and when it dawned on me, I felt privileged to had read it.
Exit West is a very relevant book for today’s time. Hamid has done a brilliant job of humanising the immigrant experience. He’s made it so personal, we get to experience what it’s like to be a refugee through the eyes of Saeed and Nadia. With the immigrant crisis in 2016, where refugees were fleeing West (Syrians and Afghanis migrating to Europe), Exit West gives the reader a rather intimate experience of what it would have been like to be a refugee.
On a side note, and in my opinion, and I may be very wrong, but the black doors through which people enter in one country and come out in another could very well represent the back doors of the large containers in which humans are trafficked. This is merely speculation on my part as we are never given an explanation of where the black doors come from.
The novel should be read and reread and an is an excellent book to have a healthy debate on various issues such as what it means to be a refugee, the migrant crisis, testing relationships and staying loyal. It may seem like a simple book but is full of big and challenging ideas. It’s a compassionate, fierce, thought-provoking and magical love story of two migrants caught up in turbulent times.
A very clever point is made towards the end about how we are all migrants in this world, whether we move from one city to another, or from one country to another country.
“…that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same house our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.”