Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Quote from Exit West

Exit West is a contemplative take on what it means to be a migrant in the 21st century. Nadia and Saeed are the central characters; two young professionals from an unnamed country torn apart by war and conflict. Their lives change forever when they exit through mysterious doors that transport them to other parts of the world, and they begin their journey as migrants in more ways than one.

I was disappointed to find that the concept of these doors was only a minor part of the story – this is not a magical realism novel in the slightest. Although I quite liked how the doors exist and are accepted alongside the more real aspects of the world (like war, for example) to emphasise how normal the unimaginable can become. There were several other descriptions which achieved the same:

“just some shootings and the odd car bombing, felt in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration like those emitted by large loudspeakers at music concerts”

“The agent spoke softly, almost sweetly, his whisper bringing to mind that of a poet or a psychopath.”

One thing I couldn’t decide on was how much I liked the writing style. Hamid writes in insanely long sentences split only by commas, and not always in the places you’d expect. Every good writer knows that long sentences cause the reader to lose their trail of thought, but it works well to mimic the loss of direction felt by the characters. An interesting literary tool, but it made the novel an effort to pursue at times.

While the theme of migration is clear from the offset, I actually found myself thinking more about nostalgia and the way we all move through our lives, leaving old parts of us behind.

“but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

The way this is alluded to throughout the book can come across as melancholy, especially when coupled with the stylistic choice of long sentences that create dreamlike muses:

“the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be”

“but that is the way of things, 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.”

But I don’t think the novel intends for this to be the primary take-away. I think the doors themselves represent the privilege of opportunity and the choices the characters have to take control of their fate. And how we, as readers, should appreciate the chances we have in life in comparison to those who have little opportunity at all.

“whispering silently from its door frame that such dreams were the dreams of fools.”

In this Exit West achieves a fresh perspective on what it means to be a migrant, challenging the stereotypes associated with migrant communities by revealing that we, as human beings, all migrate in some form or another in our lives. We migrate away from versions of ourselves; away from pain and sadness; sometimes even happiness; and away from those we love, in the ultimate pursuit of crafting who we want to become.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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