Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, two young college students in an unnamed country on the brink of war. They meet and instantly form a connection, despite some fundamental differences. Saeed is a traditional, more conservative, and introspective man from a close knit family. Yet he is immediately drawn to Nadia, an independent, free spirit who lives in her own apartment, drives a motorcycle, and is estranged from her family after following her own path. The first part of the novel tells their budding love story against the backdrop of a looming war. Nadia and Saeed fall in love as their everyday lives change by degrees and what was once a safe and prosperous city, quickly falls apart as an uncontrollable insurgency battles with a ruthless government.
After the city is almost completely demolished and falls prey to daily violence, Nadia and Saeed hear of magical doors that provide escape to distant lands. Leaving behind Saeed's father and the only life they have ever known, they walk through one of these and land in a refugee camp in Mykonos, Greece. There they begin their lives as refugees among thousands of others, also escaping war torn countries. In the midst of all the hardships that living in a refugee camp in a completely foreign land entails, Saeed and Nadia are also navigating their still new relationship and discovering the difficulties and comforts of depending on one person in an unknown new life. Throughout the novel, brief views into situations from around the world illustrate how, at heart, the experience of exile and isolation is the same; the idea of home is universal.
Refugee stories are vitally important ones to tell and this novel does so, expertly. That we see the experience from the vantage point of a couple who we met before they became refugees lends a beautiful complexity to a story and a situation that, in reality, we often only glimpse from a distance. Saeed and Nadia are unforgettable characters that I grew to deeply care about in a way that extended beyond the hardships they faced as strangers in strange lands. I was also completely captivated by the way this novel focused on the challenges of refugees once they had already arrived at their destinations. Many of these stories focus on the getting there (understandably so, since the way out of a war torn land is often just as harrowing as staying) but Hamid takes the original step of focusing on what comes next. All told, this novel has a deeply important message and brings the experience of refugees to the spotlight where it belongs. I recommend this to readers interested in refugee stories, magical realism, and great writing.