Forget Narnia. In Exit West Portals Lead Away From War.

Exit West is not just a novel about refugees from a Syria-like country. It is a novel that delves into questions like, what is home? Where is happiness found? How is love expressed, and how, when faced with trauma, does love evolve? Exit West is a novel about what it means to be human, especially when people are trying to take one’s humanity away.

Saeed and Nadia are two young people who meet and fall in love. What sets their story apart are two things. First, civil war approaches. How does one make long term plans when disaster is right around the corner; or, does one indulge in the present and take pleasure where it is found? The second complication is the option to flee the civil war. Not through a treacherous crossing over the Mediterranean Sea; but, through a portal, a doorway that leads somewhere else on the planet.

I’m not sure if it’s that I listened to the audiobook, instead of reading Exit West, but the novel was read by its author Mohsin Hamid, and his voice lent a softness to Saeed and Nadia. I think it’s in the writing too; but, the soft tone was amplified by Hamid’s voice. We watch Saeed and Nadia shyly circle questions involving intimacy, survival, and religion. We see them under the strain of migration. They find communities, change, and adapt. Or, try to.

There are moments of beauty in the novel, juxtaposed by moments of horror as the randomness of war takes away lives and innocence. Is that what changes for Saeed and Nadia? A removal of innocence?

Is that what changes for the world in this novel? Because, there is not just one door. There are many. People begin migrating from all over the world. What are borders anymore? Nationalists surge in wealthy countries. But, how long can a nationalist fever last? How long until people cross from a country like England to somewhere warm and tropical? If the lines we’ve imposed were removed, how would we identify ourselves?

Exit West is thoughtful, sorrowful, and hopeful. The novel asks readers to journey somewhere new and see a world like ours from the point-of-view of complex characters trying to find a way to survive and also find meaning.

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