Promoter Saeed and insurance agent Nadia meet in a nameless city, simply called "the city": It is full of refugees living in open spaces, setting up tents in middle discounts and sleeping on sidewalks. The city is "still peaceful, or at least not obviously a war zone". But there is a curfew, and bombers in the air over the city.
Unclear future. It is unclear where we are in time Exit West. But modern times must be, for the world is full of technology and advertising. The time is recognizable. At the same time, it is clear that the gaze is backward, to "those days", "back then". The narrator's position is thus a place into the future. What we know from our present day is described in an underlying way, as if technology was foreign, or as if it were a goal to portray it as something foreign.
The novel is kept in a slightly floating, poetic tone. Sentient formulations and metaphorical expressions emerge to adorn what is in many ways a fairly conventional narrative.
The novel portrays a world where there are doors that lead straight from one place on the globe to the other, where you move for a moment over long distances. The rumors are at least about such doors: ordinary doors, which suddenly become magical. Basically, like most others, Saeed and Nadia dismiss the rumors as nonsense.
As the level of conflict in their city increases, people begin to flee. The rebels, simply referred to as "escape and the militants", take over – and forbid, among other things, music. The situation becomes critical also for the novel's two heroes. Now it is suddenly crucial for them to find out if the rumors of the magic doors can be true. They are. Saaed and Nadia begin their escape. It goes first to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Mykonos.
Existential image. The economist reviewer sees the literary grip of the magical doors as a picture of the geographical transfers of our time, which are increasingly faster due to technological innovations. But it is more reasonable to think of it as an existential illustration of the experience of fleeing – to anywhere in no time, even if you have a specific geographical background. As their flight begins, neither Saeed nor Nadia have ever been abroad.
A world full of teleporting doors is, by far, an interesting thought experiment. How it is manufactured in Exit West, it becomes a world where all traditional differences between people become less relevant: they are reduced to a question of who controls the doors of the better-off areas. The idea is good and fascinating, but is not used to the full in the novel.
Modern times it must be, for the world is full of technology and advertising. At the same time, the gaze is backward, to "those days", "back then".
The doors of the privileged places are strictly guarded, while the doors of the poor areas are left open – "perhaps in the hope that people would go back where they came from". Vienna is being filled by refugees, for rumors are that new doors leading to new places are constantly being opened, for example to Germany. But basically, there is something static about the refugees' existence: Life is lived in camps, in contact with human traffickers and scammers, and in reality, the only thing one can do is wait, in the hope of a better fate.
The city of Saeed and Nadia leave from basically being left behind as a kind of allegory of identity: it is their point of origin, which they carry with them wherever they travel. And they travel. From Mykonos to London, and later from there. In the period described in the novel, London is said to have one or two million refugees. Tensions between the natives and migrants are increasing, the military and police are deployed, and local militia groups are formed. At the same time, for example, there are idealistic health measures.
World Weary. Exit West describes a reality that is easily recognizable, though extrapolated, or moved closer to the West than it is today. The topics covered are highly relevant. The novel is not at all unattractive, and can definitely serve as the basis for fruitful discussions and rewarding conversations. At the same time, there is something a little too programmatic about the treatment the relevant themes receive: It becomes too predictable.
Exit West is a fascinating novel, but it does not seem completely redeemed. Part of the problem lies in the fact that everything is described in a distant way, with a patina of some world law. The novel has a number of narrative digressions, smoldering novels, which are fine, but first and foremost it focuses on the story of Saeed and Nadia. As such, the work is a story of how ordinary love between man and woman works in times of crisis. It does not appear intrusive original.
Big questions. British-Pakistani Mohsin Hamid, born in 1971, is a highly acclaimed author, and has been awarded numerous awards. Exit West, his fourth novel, then also appears as very well written. The work is undoubtedly meant to say something important about big and burning issues. But the novel is not perceived as a really significant contribution to these discussions. To that end, the narrative itself is too conventional, and the political reflections too little startling.