Exit West is a beautiful little book with a scope and range that you wouldn't expect from a book that goes by so quickly. I finished it in a day, and yet feel like I picked my way through it, savoring the language, the concepts, the complexity of its characters. It's that kind of book, and also the kind of book that begs to be re-read, to be examined, to be picked apart in search of meaning.
It's a book that's more about relationships and immigration than it is about its speculative premise: that black doors have opened up around the world that allow people to move between spots on distant parts of the globe. Nadia and Saeed are two young people in a country torn by civil war who begin a relationship even as the war is heating up. The reader doesn't learn that the black doors are anything more than a rumor until at least halfway through the book when Nadia and Saeed escape their country for a series of refugee camps that showcase how the richer parts of the world react when refugees begin to show up inside their borders without warning.
Nadia and Saeed are both complexly drawn characters, beautiful and flawed in ways that make them as real and believable as the world they inhabit and the relationship that they enter into. They are not in any way, shape, or form meant for each other, and yet in difficult circumstances they cling to each other and support each other until they are finally somewhere where they don't need to cling to each other, and then they part, slowly, sadly, without fireworks or drama, simply because they are growing apart. The care that Hamid takes in portraying their relationship is wonderful to see, and grounds a story with very wide scope in a very intimate, if rocky, relationship.
Exit West also does an amazing job of portraying the ways that immigration affects personal relationships; how it feels to leave people behind, the draw to be with people like yourself in a new and strange place, and the new and beautiful relationships that people form when people are able to travel. The part of the books at actually hit me the hardest is a short chapter focused on a completely different pair of characters than Nadia and Saeed; in only a couple of pages it tells the entire story of a black door that opens up between the gardens of two old men, who don't speak the same language but go through the trouble of learning each other's languages, become friends, and fall in love. And that's the whole story, but it's told with such beauty and simplicity that it made me cry. For just that chapter, I would recommend this book.
However, the book is more than just that chapter, and the rest of the book is wonderful too. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a beautiful, thoughtful book to read.
5 out of 5 Stars on Goodreads.