If you like rich characters who grow and change throughout a story, and novels that ask you to walk in other people’s shoes, I highly recommend you read Exit West.
This is a story of migration, relationships, and above all, change — change in the lives of specific individuals, and also change in the world as a whole.
The novel follows Saeed and Nadia, two young people from an unnamed city that begins as a refuge for people fleeing violence and eventually spirals down to become one of those places that people flee from.
I think that Hamid’s choice not to name the city where Saeed and Nadia live, and eventually must leave, allows the reader to insert a little of herself — her assumptions, questions, knowledge, and ignorance — into the story. The result is a deeply human narrative that I believe almost anyone could empathize with.
The story is made even more immersive by Hamid’s evocative and lyrical writing. It takes him only sentences to conjure up whole characters, like —
“In the drawer of her bedside table were a half-full packet of birth control pills, last consumed three months ago, when she and her husband were still trying not to conceive, passports, checkbooks, receipts, coins, keys, a pair of handcuffs, and a few paper-wrapped sticks of unchewed chewing gum.”
“in the Tokyo district of Shinjuku… a young man was nursing a drink for which he had not paid and yet to which he was entitled… The man wore a suit and a crisp white shirt and therefore any tattoos he did or did not have on his arms would not be visible.”
The most striking and enduring image throughout the book is that of the doors — dark doors, “darker than night, a rectangle of complete darkness” — that appear around the world, connecting one place on Earth to another. People start to use these doors to seek refuge from violence or famine or other threats, entering often without knowing where the door leads.
Using these dark doors as a metaphor for migration, Hamid creates a world just slightly askew from our own. Removing the journey itself, he forces readers to look, really look, at the complex reasons why people go and why people stay. And what happens when they arrive somewhere new — somewhere that they may be unwelcome or unwanted. And what happens when they arrive in those somewheres en masse.
I found this book beautiful and difficult. I’m still thinking about it, both the characters and the ideas below the surface, days after having read its last page. I can’t recommend it enough.