Against the background of the migrant or refugee crisis – and especially the socio-political backlash across cities in the West – Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” revolves around the lives of two working students, interspersed with tangentially related stories of other lives around the world. Nadia and Saeed start from an unidentified city where they have grown up in and which eventually becomes the site of violence between the government and unidentified militants, moving to Mykonos, Greece, to London, the United Kingdom, and then to San Francisco, the United States (geographically to the West). The unique catch is that instead of using traditional air, sea, or land migration passages across cities, they move through doors which link different locations to one another.
The plot, however, remains grounded by the evolving relationship between Nadia and Saeed, as well as the relationship of the couple with their family members and other individuals they meet along their journey. The moments of physical intimacy and awkwardness are well-detailed, the disagreements, conflicts, as well as internal thoughts or tensions – told through a third-person perspective, which therefore offers both a critical distance from the protagonists but also a unique position to understand and to empathise with both sides at the same time – are well fleshed out, and the perpetual sense of uncertainty experienced by the couple, in the face of apathy or hostility brought about by the native born (vis-à-vis the migrants), in London in particular, are well described.
By focusing on a love story of refugees – with its equal share of universal elements which individuals may easily identify with, such as the tentativeness in the initial phases of a relationship and the long-term questions which surface as a relationship matures, and its share of tragedy which are unique to war and displacement, such as estrangement, death, and the limitations of cramped, temporary living spaces – “Exit West”, in this vein, can be read as a broader appeal to a common humanity, oftentimes detached from this less-than-desirable circumstances. Hamid does this important job of communicating the emotions, of teasing out the aforementioned similarities and differences, in a bid to perhaps convince the reader to shed his or her apathy or lethargy in the face of these global problems.