Saeed is the only son of a retired schoolteacher and a semi-retired professor. Like his parents, he is educated, gentle, and full of faith. He loves the night sky and dreams of traveling the world. Nadia is a young professional who lives alone in a city that is distrustful of women who live alone. She is independent, secular, and estranged from her religious family. She wears stern robes as self protection, but the modest robes are contradicted by the motorcycle she rides around the city.
Nadia and Saeed live in an unnamed city in an unnamed country. They meet and fall in love in a night class just as their city is about to fall to militants. As the civil war shuts down the city, taking their jobs, their electricity, and their freedom, Saeed and Nadia hear of doors that will take people away. No one knows where the doors came from, but one day a door to your closet could become a gateway to a beach town or a shop in another country. Once they find people who can lead them to a door for a fee, Nadia and Saeed travel to Greece, then the U.K., eventually ending up in the U.S.
I thought this was a creative story about refugees and emigration. When I bought this book, I didn’t realize there was a magical element to it, that there were doors that could sweep people from one side of the world to another. It reminded me a bit of the wardrobe to Narnia, only the locations are places in the known world. Some doors take people to places that are safer than others, but they are all the same in that each place is experiencing a struggle between migrants and natives. While most of the novel is about Nadia and Saeed, there are short passages woven throughout that introduce people in transition. Many of these minor characters are door travelers like Nadia and Saeed, and others are simply in conflict with a changing world.
Hamid’s writing style is compelling. Originally, it struck me as being minimalistic until I realized how long some of the sentences are, forcing me to re-evaluate. I suppose it would be best described as controlled, with shorter sentences effectively making their point and longer sentences sweeping you away. Some passages I enjoyed:
“Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.”
“. . so by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
“. . . prayer for him became about being a man, being one of the men, a ritual that connected him to adulthood and to the notion of being a particular sort of man, a gentleman, a gentle man, a man who stood for community and faith and kindness and decency, a man, in other words, like his father.”
I liked Exit West, enjoying the writing style, the characters, and the originality. However, I didn’t love it, as I felt the first half was stronger than the second half. Still I would recommend this novel, mostly to readers of literary fiction.
FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.
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