Exit West is a book that’s hard to review because it’s so many things layered and intertwined.
It starts with Saeed and Nadia’s love story and uses this as a means to help navigate us through the changes they face in their own city and the immigration crisis that affects the whole world.
I could write a whole post just on their love story and how Hamid allowed the two to remain individuals. Stories often ask the reader to root for the couple as an entity, but Hamid allowed us to connect with them as individuals while still appreciating the couple. This is crucial throughout the story, as their love and relationship ebbs and flows while being pulled in a multitude of directions.
But, it’s the immigration crisis that I want to focus on. One of the best things about fiction is that it introduces readers to other perspectives, which generates empathy and gives the reader a better understanding of the world. Saeed and Nadia find themselves in an unsafe situation and eventually decide to leave. We learn about the struggles around the decision to leave, the fear around finding a way out, the sorrow of leaving people behind, and the trials faced by refugees once they’re on foreign soil. In other words, we learn a bit about refugees.
“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
But, Hamid adds a little magical realism to make this even more interesting: doors that act as portals to other places begin to open. Suddenly, the world needs to learn how to deal with random people from other countries showing up in unexpected places: restaurants, mansions, bedrooms, anywhere. Some doors are fiercely protected, both to keep people out and to keep people in. Others are all but ignored at both ends, where travellers are barely acknowledged as they appear.
This, of course, creates a global immigration crisis. Desirable countries are being inundated with refugees. This puts a strain on resources (space, food, etc.) and opens the doors for anti-immigrant actions (protests and violence). The reader experiences it through the lives of Saeed and Nadia. We see the ease with which some groups are willing to turn to violence (violence begets violence) and how potentially dangerous ideals can creep into our lives. We see the dangers refugees face even amongst themselves. We see the determination some have to make lives for themselves in safe countries, even if it means hard work and being disconnected from family.
Hamid also intersects the main story with little snippets of other people’s experiences, which helped to set the tone of the book and illustrate the consequences of the doors, good and bad.
It’s a beautiful and touching look at immigration, refugees, and the countries they flee to. Hamid is very careful to quietly, but honestly, shows the good and the bad on all sides.
It’s also a beautifully written book.
I highly recommend Exit West.