Intro: This is the third in the series of Booker nominated book reviews that I’m doing in collaboration with Writenlive. Read her wonderful review of the book here.
Synopsis from Goodreads :
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.Exit West follows these characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
There is a scene in Exit West where Saeed and Nadia, the two protagonists of the story, are sitting with each other and trying to feel what the other is going about. There are few, if any, words spoken, and there’s the desire to speak a few, although that remains unfulfilled. Exit West has many such scenes that go beyond themselves to add up to a satisfying narrative.
The book starts in an unnamed city that is facing a war-like situation between the govt forces and the militant rebels. The protagonists are normal, everyday people who are drawn to each other. The difference here is that the author reverses the gender stereotypes. So, Saeed is the soft-spoken, homely and religious young man and Nadia is the fiercely independent 21st century-woman. She wears an “all-concealing black robe,” covering everything except for her eyes, “So men don’t f**k with me.” When the fighting escalates and casualties mount, Saeed and Nadia decide it best to leave the city for someplace else, through one of the “doors” they have heard about. The doors are a neat little plot device, as they can transport people from one place to the other, anywhere on the globe. Furthermore, despite being Muslims, Nadia and Saeed are universal characters, independent of the shackles of time and space. The pain and the difficulties that they go through are universal themes, and the issue of refugees, while quite topical at the moment, owing to the influx of Syrian migrants in Europe, is going to be, as always, one of the burning issues for mankind. Take a peek into the horrors that Myanmar’s Rohingyas are facing. (caution: it is a rather graphic article).
The book doesn’t flinch from describing violence. Take a look at this :
For Nadia this person was her cousin, a man of considerable determination and intellect, who even when he was young had never cared much for play, who seemed to laugh only rarely, who had won medals in school and decided to become a doctor, who had successfully emigrated abroad, who returned once a year to visit his parents, and who, along with eighty-five others, was blown by a truck bomb to bits, literally to bits, the largest of which, in Nadia’s cousin’s case, were a head and two-thirds of an arm.
Exit West overflows with sentences having multiple clauses. In fact, there are entire paragraphs that are just one single sentence, bound by commas, each subordinate clause adding to the sentence’s overall idea and building on it. If you aren’t a fan of long, winding sentences, you might have a hard time reading it, at least initially. But if you are anything like me, oh boy, are you in for a treat! The long sentences make the book feel like a breeze, especially in the early chapters when we are getting to know the characters.
Saeed for his part wished he could do something for Nadia, could protect her from what would come, even if he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you. He thought she deserved better than this, but he could see no way out, for they had decided not to run, not to play roulette with yet another departure.
The breeze of the opening half slows to a zephyr in the second half, as the couple come to terms with the difficulties of a relationship and as they face the ordeals of refugees on a daily basis. The difficulties of life in a foreign land forces educated people like Saeed and Nadia to live on alms and menial jobs. The author, though, seemed unsure as to how he could sustain the pace of the earlier chapters, as the characters faced the consequences of their decisions.
There are snippets throughout the book that present the effect of these travels through doors on the lives and hearts of people throughout the book. One in particular stood out, with two elderly men from latitudinally-opposite sides of the globe finding comfort in one another.
Ultimately, Exit West made me connect with the feelings of the book’s leads. While being an acute examination of the pains of the refugees fleeing war zones, it is also a love story. Its examination of the relationship, through the ups and downs, is as natural a job as possible. It details what happens when we allow our relationships to morph into festering wounds.
Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.
This is a contemporary story with a fantasy device thrown in, but the love story and the pain are grounded in reality. It could be the story of people anywhere on the globe. But anyone who’s ever loved, platonically or otherwise, would see the pathos in the interactions of Saeed and Nadia, and the power of the unsaid word. That is a triumph on the book’s part, and colloquially, on the author’s, for the silences in the book speak as loudly as the bomb blasts that rock through the city of its origin.
Verdict: Exit West is a timeless human story that, while being topical, wouldn’t be out of place in any era or century. Highly recommended.
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction.
Wishlist: I’d like to see Riz Ahmed and Golshifteh Farahani play the central characters in the film adaptation, if it gets made.
Have you read Exit West? What is your take on the book? Which of the other nominees have you read? Drop your views in the comments section.
“Because great books deserve great discussions.”
Thanks for reading.
Exit West really is a wonderful book and your review does it much credit.
I like the first part of the book very much; to me, the stark reality spoke louder than the magic realism and encountering those mysterious doors was a little unnerving.
The language, the long sentences and the multiple clauses make me long to write like that; unfettered.
I think you liked this book very much, it must have been on the top of your Booker probables.
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Among the top ones, yes.
Btw, thank you for the kind words. It really was a wonderful book.