Mohsin Hamid had an idea: a future where people could travel by walking through a door. And then he tried to write a novel – Exit West – around this idea with varying degrees of success.
Most successful is the grafting to this idea the ideas of home, belonging, citizenship and immigration. Our two protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, open the novel in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. Desperate to escape the country they pay to exit through a ‘door’ (which shouldn’t be in quotes because it is a literal door, but (of course), also a metaphorical door). Along with many of their countrymen they escape and find themselves unwelcome refugees in the lands on the other side of the door(s). Think about it. If you had the idea or prompt – “Doors that open to another place” – you could use that idea in all sorts of fanciful ways. I would most certainly have a door taking me to a pizza factory, for instance. Hamid goes the other way and takes the tired metaphor and scene of border crossing and offers a fresh take. The door allows the exploration of the desirability of destinations (which doors get guarded), of state security (how and whether and when doors are policed by the state) and agency and access (who can make it to a door, who can pay to open one).
Less successful is the romance narrative. Narrated in third person omniscient, the novel has a distinctly fairy tale tone and feel that would/could lend itself to a sweeping romance. Alas in this case I never connected with either Saeed or Naidia. Which isn’t to say I didn’t find their romance believable, or the ultimate conclusion of their relationship relatable. More I didn’t care enough about either of them to be overly concerned by their individual or collective fates. I was much more interested in the doors and the world they opened into. As I suspect Hamid was, too.
I have trouble locating where things don’t quite work – as the writing is top notch, the characters are given all sorts of opportunity to develop, the conflict is real and pressing, the settings unnervingly universal and realistic (and dystopic, I should add). I think it comes down to narrative point of view for me. I wonder if this one might really be the example of where rewriting from a different point of view makes it a much better novel. I can see it narrated from either Saaed or Nadia’s perspective and finding a much stronger sense of connection and empathy. Of course you can argue that this connection isn’t the point. That I’m meant to be focused on the conceit. But, for me, I wanted a stronger connection to character and a more complete sense of the impact of leaving on them as individuals and their relationship.
So this isn’t a settled one for me. More that the idea itself offers a solid exploration of a refugee experience, if not a terribly good romance.