Published by Penguin on March 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Literary
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In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . . .
“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
I thought this book was quietly brutal. And quietly beautiful, as well.
If you’ve come here looking for magical realism, I would advise against it. Exit West contains only the barest of fantastical elements – essentially, metaphorical doors or portals that symbolize the migrant experience. This is not explored in any depth and serves only to propel the characters from their unnamed homeland to Greece, then London, then America.
Exit West is really about the relationship between the young couple, Saeed and Nadia, and how their experiences as migrants in foreign countries affects who they are and what they need. Held together by a shared past, they try to cling to one another, even as they grow into very different people. It’s subtle and exquisitely bittersweet.
The book starts in a country in the middle of political turmoil. The country is not named, but that is not really the point, for it could be any country in the middle of crisis. Any country that forces its people to try to seek out a better life elsewhere. When Saeed’s mother is killed and the threat of violence becomes too much, Saeed and Nadia talk to a man who promises to get them out.
They are both irreparably changed by the move to new places that are at once both comforting and unwelcoming. I think the power of this book lies in the lack of manipulation and sentimentality. In many ways, it’s just a love story between two vibrant, pot-smoking young people who are affected by forces beyond their control.
It is these kind of quietly moving stories that affect me most of all. Authors who try to create dramatic, tear-inducing scenes never move me emotionally, but those who craft scenes of gentle truth can totally rip my heart out. And that’s exactly what happened here.