In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.
At first, I found it difficult to get into this story. The writing could not really draw me in, as it often felt like the author was trying too hard to be poetic. He was trailing off in lengthy descriptions, for example, of the various kinds and depths of darkness. While surely many readers were glued to his words, they just could not keep my attention and had me skim over to the next paragraph, where that one sentence finally ended. Not that the style was entirely bad or not appropriate, on the contrary. It was intelligently constructed and sometimes did enrich the story with clever remarks, but on other occasions it simply took me out of the narrative.
However, this happened only infrequently once the story picked up pace and I could immerse myself into the events. You experience what it feels like to live in a city that is being torn apart by militants and government forces, and how quickly luxuries like a phone signal, the internet, electricity and even running water and fresh food can vanish. What struck me here was how relatable it was, as we see everything through the eyes of Saeed and Nadia; normal, young people who just want to live their lives. Those were of course not perfect before the fighting either, and in the environment of this unnamed, seemingly Arabic city, I realised again what difficulties and restrictions unmarried women who want to be independent have to face there.
This realism, the feeling of experiencing a war situation, thinking about what you would do and understanding that it can literally happen to anyone, at any time; that is to me the most exceptional part of the book. It is eye-opening, scary, it makes you think, feel more empathetic and grateful at the same time. In contrast to that stands the concept of mysterious doors that randomly appear and can send you all over the world. I think the author used this shortcut as a way of speeding up the events and avoiding the long refugee journeys, while preserving the feelings and struggles of those who have to leave their homes behind. Still, I never thought the blurb was actually serious and had to do several double takes, but there we go.
What I noticed, as did my buddy reader Kücki, was a distance maintained to the characters throughout the story. Dialogue is rare, even the death of an important character is told in a matter-of-fact way and only on one occasion did I tear up. But this book is not intended to be a tear jerker, at least that was my impression. It reflects about identity and shows you what is happening in the world, how fragile safety and our structures of society are, and how things fall apart if we refuse to adapt to change. Especially interesting was the outlook on the future, and there was hope in this promise that the world does not necessarily end, even after a global crisis. There will always be conflicts where humans are but, if we are lucky enough to survive, we always get to shape our communities and the world merely rebuilds itself.
As there were a few aspects that bothered me, especially the ending to which I have barely more to say than ‘meh’, I was inclined to give Exit West 3.5 stars. But I want to avoid doing things only halfway, so I decided on four because the central part had such a fundamental impact on my perception of what is happening these days. I will see the news with different eyes now, and hope that more people will read this story.
Exit West | Mohsin Hamid | Paperback: 229 pages | Published 2017 by Hamish Hamilton
My rating: ★★★★☆
Thanks to Lovelybooks and Penguin UK for this copy!