Review by Jenna Rogers
What would happen to a blossoming relationship if it were cast in the middle of a humanitarian crisis? What if escape was as simple as walking through a door? These are the questions that Mohsin Hamid poses in Exit West (Hamish Hamilton, 2017). A story of love and hope amidst tragedy and terror, Exit West is also an account of two people finding peace and strength in their individual narratives – even if remaining true to themselves means being apart. Sprinkled with just the right amount of magical realism, Hamid skilfully examines two lives intertwined by circumstance, and paints a humanised picture of refugees in a world that should care more for their plight.
The novel follows two people in an unnamed city, but with militants bombing the city and the death toll rising, it is hard not to imagine the devastation of cities such as Aleppo as the backdrop. Saeed, a quiet young man who appears to lack professional motivation and to question what he believes, sees Nadia, a strong young woman who lives by herself, in a classroom but hasn’t the nerve to speak to her. He overcomes this hesitation quickly, for not long after he first lays eyes on her, Saeed strikes up a conversation as they are leaving class. He had sized Nadia as a conservative woman based on her traditional clothing, but is made to quickly adjust his perception after she rejects his offer to meet for coffee:
He watched as she walked out to the student parking area and there, instead of covering her head with a black cloth, as he expected, she donned a black motorcycle helmet that had been locked to a scuffed-up hundred-ish cc trail bike, snapped down her visor, straddled her ride, and rode off, disappearing with a controlled rumble into the gathering dust.
From that point onwards, Saeed discovers their striking differences: he still lives with his parents – Nadia has been excommunicated by her family; Saeed feels guilt for his lack of faith and prayer – Nadia is ambivalent, at most, towards religion; Saeed’s experiences with sex and drugs are limited and few – Nadia purchases marijuana and has been in a sexual relationship. Despite their differences, however, they are drawn to each other and begin to fall in love.
Whilst Saeed and Nadia’s relationship matures, their city is crumbling into disarray and horror. This development does not come as a surprise: Hamid states plainly at the beginning of the novel that ‘with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.’ Life here does not carry on peacefully. Saeed and Nadia become accustomed to being stopped by soldiers who ask for identification, and the shaking of the earth from bombs becomes a normal occurrence:
Air strikes were called in by the army on both occasions, shattering Saeed’s bathroom window while he was in the shower, and shaking like an earthquake Nadia and her lemon tree as she sat on her terrace smoking a joint. Fighter-bombers grated hoarsely through the sky.
The façade of their daily lives become dismantled as the militants take over the city. Saeed and Nadia’s co-workers disappear, windows are boarded up, and a curfew is set in place. Soon, they begin to hear rumours of doors that can lead to another realm. Initially dismissed as wishful thinking, now the idea of walking through a door to a new life begins to sounds like their only option rather than an absurd fantasy, and at Saeeds’ father’s urging (who loses his wife to a routine bombing), the couple go in search of a door to a new world. This is not as simple as it sounds, however, and Hamid reveals the reality of stepping into another life to be more physical and strenuous than either had initially believed:
It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side,trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat.
And this is only the first door that they exit. This first door brings them to Mykonos, and the island is filled with refugees living in makeshift tents. Food is scarce, and trust must be earned. Saeed and Nadia rely on each other, and at first attribute their resilience to their love. Yet after another refugee, a young girl, helps them to a second door, Nadia and Saeed begin to question their compatibility. Before their first journey, Saeed’s father compels Nadia to remain by Saeed’s side. By asking this favour of Nadia, the relationship’s foundation is no longer love but circumstance and convenience. As they move further away from their home, the distance within their relationship begins to widen. The second place they find passage to is London, and they exit in a building filled with Nigerian refugees. At first, the set-up is ideal, but as refugees fill the city in every corner, tensions rise:
The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart.
At devastating speed, London dissolves into violence. The British military is deployed to keep the peace on both sides. Nativists and refugees alike become violent, with the former spewing xenophobic hate whilst the refugees make desperate attempts to protect themselves. As Saeed turns to prayer and religion, and Nadia longs to escape the violence, Hamid describes how their one-solid relationship begins to disintegrate along with their surroundings:
All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields, and slipping away from other people too, people they had in some cases loved, as Nadia slipping away from Saeed, and Saeed from Nadia.
The drifting apart begins as knots in their stomachs and grows into the inevitability of a physical separation. Each are desperate to hold on to the other, but their London experience opened their eyes to what they always chose to overlook: Saeed’s love of his faith and Nadia’s love of her independence. Soon, their conversations are restricted to phone calls, text messages, and dissolve into to keeping tabs on each other through social media. Their feelings, once intense and sensual, begin to dwindle away, and a once-passionate love succumbs to fond remembrance:
Neither much enjoyed catching unexpected glimpses of their former lover’s new existence online, and so they distanced themselves from each other on social networks, and while they wished to look out for each other, at to keep tabs on each other, staying in touch took a toll on them, serving as an unsettling reminder of a life not lived, and also they grew less worried for the other, less worried that the other would need them to be happy, and eventually a month went by without any contact, and then year, and then a lifetime.
Had they met under better circumstances, had they lived in a more peaceful world, Hamid implies, it is possible Nadia and Saeed could have remained together, loved together, and died together. What is so effective about Exit West, however, is that we see two humans acknowledging that harrowing experiences do not justify a broken relationship. Nadia and Saeed do what needs to be done to survive. Exit West is more than a literary and political commentary on the refugee crisis in our time: it is about releasing those you love to give them a better life.
Jenna Rogers is studying for a masters in prose writing. She graduated from Olivet Nazarene University in 2014 with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. After teaching at a language immersion school and a library for a few years, she decided to move to St. Andrews and focus on writing stories. She’s originally from Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.