Exit West: A Novel

Image of Exit West: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 6, 2017
Riverhead Books
Reviewed by: 

“Exit West is a smart, sympathetic, and deeply human story . . .”

Nadia and Saeed are ill matched. Nadia is a libertine who lives alone, rides a motorcycle, smokes hash, and listens to American soul music. Saeed is a conformist who lives with his parents, prays daily, and seeks to never give offense. Yes, they are ill matched, but they are also falling in love. In this way, Moshin Hamid’s new novel, Exit West, starts as a very conventional love story.

But Exit West is not a love story. War between the government and Islamist militants comes to Nadia and Saeed’s city. The militants win, and Nadia and Saeed decide to flee. Most of Exit West is about Nadia and Saeed’s life as refugees, first on a Greek Island, then in Europe, then in London, and finally in the United States. Along the way, the two young lovers remain close companions, but increasingly fall out of love.

It is hard not to consider the poignancy of Hamid’s narrative at a time when Mideast refugees are at the center of our national discussion. But Hamid is wise to steer clear of overt political statements in Exit West. We learn that a single woman with western tastes, such as Nadia, needs to fear Islamist militants; and we know British nationalist reactionaries are threatening to Saeed. But Hamid keeps the human story at his book’s center and politics in the background.

The large majority of Exit West is realistic, well written narrative. Hamid avoids simplistic hero or villain characters. Readers can root for both main characters even as they come dislike each other. Bit characters—including Saeed’s traditional father and intimidating Nigerian immigrants—are also sympathetic. The kindness of a Greek woman who befriends Nadia is essential to the couple successfully reaching Europe.

But Exit West also delves into magical realism. Mysterious “doors” transport the refugees from country to country. London and Marin County, California, are ethereal places—clouded by darkness, fog, and peculiar boundaries and terminology. Scenes briefly survey life in a half dozen countries that sit outside of the main narrative.

While Hamid largely restrains himself from making overt political statements, the content of his Exit West invites politically tinged observations. For example, as the refugees passively endure subpar services and nativist provocations in London, Hamid reminds us that “courage is demanded not to attack when afraid.” The refugees are rewarded for their non-retaliation by the return of their electricity.

Hamid also makes several subtle references to U.S. history when discussing Nadia and Saeed. For example, the refugees merely seek “forty meters in and a pipe” to live in London—a likely a reference to the “forty acres and a mule” promised to freed slaves after the Civil War. Hamid also briefly discusses the fate of Native Americans and, at book’s end, profiles the African American Muslim community near San Francisco.

In total, Exit West is a smart, sympathetic, and deeply human story on a topic—Mideast refugees—that is poignant and relevant to our times. This book and author deserve a strong American readership.