Home & Humanity in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

Published in 2017, Exit West contains themes of emigration and political refugees. This book was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in 2018 among the many other accolades that it has received.  

Saeed and Nadia are a young couple in a city bordering on conservativeness and modernity. They nurture a relationship on texting and largely avoid talking about their futures together. In their unnamed city, militants take over and residents are forced into curfew and locked down houses where death lurks at every corner.

Looking for a way out, the two tragedy-stricken individuals hear about (magical) doors that prove to be escape routes. With the foreseeable future being both uncertain and dangerous, Saeed and Nadia leave their city behind with a heavy heart that is felt to the reader as well in order to save their lives.

In this manner, they leave their homes, Saeed leaves his father and the city that will house his mother’s grave, Nadia leaves to dust her hard-earned freedom. Two people who never bargained for this destiny leave a territory that with its given unrest was once their safe abode.

We only realize the sweetness of safety when we are miles away from it. Safety shouldn’t be earned but should be everyone’s right. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, such is not the case. Through Exit West, Hamid with his eloquent words and the ability to weave unrelated stories together tells the reader that the human spirit may move through various territories in a given lifetime but the experience of being uprooted is destabilizing.

We don’t just read about Saeed and Nadia, we comes across many other parallel stories where we see stories of both forced and willed migration and a lifelong search for home. These stories lack closure and I was left wanting for more, which isn’t a bad thing. The book raises more questions about human survival in a state of refuge than it provides answers for. 

For Saeed and Nadia, there’s no such thing as finding a base or finding a cozy spot to create a home in. Their only motive is to move through various cities to survive better. Just as I felt that maybe the city they have now arrived in will serve them better, they find another door and don’t think twice before making the move.

Hamid’s decision to build up doors in various junctures of his story, these doors that appear overnight in people’s hallways and elsewhere make the story border on magical realism. These passages can be the cause of great discomfort or delight for the reader. I mean, who doesn’t like secret doorways that can transport you to new destinations within minutes?

Hamid’s decision to do away with a refugee’s actual journey from a volatile city to a relatively safe one by propping up these doors is rather questionable. I was left to wonder whether this decision was made solely to shorten the length of the story or to not let the plot slip away from exploring the experience of finding oneself in strange and often hostile geography.

Gender politics in the book is skillfully explored by Hamid who has reversed normative qualities in our main characters. Saeed is grounded by his morals, attached to his parents, devoted to their care and Nadia is more restrained in emotional expression and denies being shackled by domestic dullness. Despite his brilliant decision of characterizing Saeed and Nadia in this way, these two who hold the pillar of the story fell emotionally flat for me.

In certain points of the story, they become mere bodies moving through doors and I wouldn’t hold it as a hindrance as one understands that living for mere survival can do that to people. Saeed and Nadia go through an unimaginable set of difficulties throughout the book and the picture of their character development is blurry at best. They are not hard to empathise with yet much is left to read between the lines of the characters suffering.

A silence grows between Saeed and Nadia because of the broken world they find themselves in. We see them drifting apart even when we see them trying their best yet deciding that their happiness lies away from one another. It was heartbreaking to encounter this disconnect. I was then led to think that maybe for once, both Saeed and Nadia got to choose their paths and they didn’t even need a door for this.

Exit West is a short 130-page read that showcases Hamid’s skill as a storyteller and the universal experience of displacement. The politics of power that destroy homes creates situations where the common humanity of people is truly put to test. Driving one to ask that unsettling question – Is there even such a thing as common humanity when it comes to survival? Even though the book left me with a feeling equivalent to that of being parched, Hamid’s use of language requires as much appreciation as it can get.

This book is best suited for people who crave heavy reads and find it easy to navigate through the genre of literary fiction challenging the reader’s imagination.