By Freya Neason
In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid introduces us to a blossoming relationship within a war torn and nameless city. The novel tracks the development of this new relationship as the couple, Saeed and Nadia, attempt to find peace and safety together. At a time when the refugee crisis plagues our societies this novel is a highly topical and insightful take on how such terrifying situations can test, as well as strengthen, some of our most important relationships. Despite the fact that the premise for this novel could allow for a considerably political tone, it is instead essentially a love story – and a gripping one at that.
Almost immediately, Nadia and Saeed’s relationship is forced upon a different tangent than they intended due to militants destroying their city. Once they gain access to a magic black door that holds the promise of safety on the other side, the plot follows their journey through these secret portals. This frequent change in scenery allowed for the most successful aspect of this novel: Hamid’s handling of the concept of space. As Saeed and Nadia’s relationship evolves in tandem with ever changing surroundings, Hamid shows how sometimes individuals can be a reflection of their own surroundings.
Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other different, for personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us. (p.186)
Furthermore, much of the success of this novel lies in the fact that, despite focusing on a couple, Hamid was able to draw out the effects of terrifying and trying circumstances on the individual. Nadia and Saeed are a couple, yet they clearly still have different relationships with their faith, their surrounding area, their home town and the danger that surrounds them. At a time when the migrant crisis is portrayed as a collective experience, herds of people akin to herds of sheep, Hamid reminds the reader of the endurance of individuality.
Exit West is a love story that deals with heavy issues. Regardless of the sometimes graphic descriptions that the novel contains it still remains readable, making it easy enough to get through in just a few hours, as the writing style is beautiful and elegant. Despite the terror that envelopes the protagonists of this novel, much of their attention is focused on each other. As a result of this, Exit West is a skillful and at times relatable portrayal of a relationship as it blooms and evolves.
Image: Katie Butler