A kind of fairy-tale atmosphere surrounds ‘Exit West’, an atmosphere which becomes increasingly ghoulish as the novel explores the spectres which haunt the protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, from the militants who take over their anonymous country and force them to flee to a London which itself has been beset with violence and vituperation against refugees, to the haunting breakdown of their relationship. ‘Exit West’ could be read as an allegory on intolerance towards refugees in the West, but that would diminish its meaning and power, instead it could be seen as an exploration of what it means to be human whilst coping with the constant pressure of dehumanisation.
Nadia and Saeed’s fledgling relationship is interrupted by political revolution, each of them finding solace in the feelings they have developed for one another. Hamid skilfully weaves a colourful tapestry of secondary characters, from Saeed’s parents to the office workers, drug dealers, cousins and shopkeepers who we briefly encounter in the story and who further illuminate the tragedy which takes over the country. The light, however, shines brightest on Nadia and Saeed who eventually flee via magic doorways which can transport people anywhere in the world. These doorways serve to perpetuate the transient nature of existence on Hamid’s dystopian depiction of an alternative earth, as national boundaries disintegrate and the identities which come with them gradually coalesce. In many ways ‘Exit West’ is about the baggage people bring with them when they migrate or flee to another country; Nadia continues to cover herself from head to toe in a black niqab to preserve the sense of identity and anonymity it brings, whereas the more sentimental Saeed is caught up on nostalgia and reverie for the country and people he has lost.
‘Exit West’ is a unique and interesting exploration of human nature, a story which combines science fiction with the story of two refugees who seek to re-build not just their lives, but their sense of existence, from the ashes of the disasters who caused their world to collapse.