The story follows two young lovers – Saeed and Nadia – who are caught up in an increasingly war-torn nation that is never named. They met in a night class and eventually met up for coffee and so on. It seems at first that this could be any typical love story. This is not the case as suddenly, all over their unnamed city and the rest of the world, pitch black portals are opening up behind otherwise normal doorways. These doorways lead to potential salvation or destruction it would seem as those who walk through them are transported to the great cities of the world – London, Tokyo, Vienna and more.
The city the story establishes itself in is vaguely Middle Eastern and it is something of a masterstroke from Hamid to leave it unnamed and unspecific. For the first few chapters I was inclined to think that there may even be some cutting satire being delivered from the author as it was not all that far from suggesting that it could have as easily been a dystopian vision of any number of Western cities, America included. It is up to the reader to interpret ‘the city’ as wherever they choose but it would make for an interesting re-read to envisage a different backdrop each time.
As Saeed and Nadia continue through their journey from ‘the city’ to Mykanos, from Mykanos to London, and from London to San Francisco you see them start to grow apart and to question their togetherness and individual identity in the face of the crises around them. This focus on the individual stops the book becoming to heavy a read at any point and allows an altogether more real image of the current refugee situations facing the world. Hamid manages to walk the tightrope between biting cynicism of hostile attitudes to diasporic communities and the innate personal stuggle that migrants are likely to find just as difficult as the movement of entire cultures. At one point, when confronted by militia like hostility from London ‘natives’ Nadia and Saeed discuss one of the issues faced by countries recieving refugees:
‘I can understand it,’ she said. ‘Imagine if you lived here. And millions of peopole from all over the world suddenly arrived.’
‘Millions arrived in our country,’ Saeed replied. ‘When there were wrs nearby.’
‘That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose’.
The timeliness of this book is nothing short of remarkable and to approach these different worlds with such sincerity and honesty leads me to feel that this is not only a great book, but an important book. Blending genres is never something that is easy to do – many have tried, many have failed – but Hamid has managed to blend magical realism, satire, and romance so expertly that you honestly never pigeonhole Exit West in any one of them, nor find yourself questioning the change of rhetoric in the story.
It is a beautifully written book that has the potential to be hugely influential in its time. There are few novels out there that seem to have such a potent yet poetic message for society as it stands today and Exit WestEdit is reminiscent in its style, length and impact of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men which so accurately and bravely undertook an examination of Depression Era America and the ills that its society faced at the time. It is no understatement then to assume that this book could well become required reading in schools and universities across the Western world in a very succint space of time, such is the genius of this work.