Shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker prize, Exit West begins as a love story and turns into something more. Not quite magic realism, it is a novel that uses the fantastical in a way that reminded me a little of The Underground Railroad.
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something.
The first half of this book concerns the growing relationship between Saeed and Nadia. Saeed lives at home with his parents while Nadia is estranged from hers, living alone in an apartment where Saeed visits her, waiting for her to throw down a black robe for him to wear as a disguise so that her neighbours won’t know that she is receiving a male visitor. Despite Nadia’s black robe, which she wears everywhere outside, she isn’t particularly religious, laughing at Saeed when he says that they shouldn’t have sex before marriage (though they do everything but). The robe is. she says, ‘So men don’t fuck with me.’
As their relationship develops, changes are taking place within their city. Fighting breaks out and both Saeed and Nadia lose their jobs as their companies are forced to close down. Nadia ends up moving in with Saeed’s family after realising it’s no longer safe to live alone. As fighting increases, and their part of the city is taken over by militants, they hear of a man who can get them out if they pay him. Saeed and Nadia will make this journey alone, taken first to a dentist’s clinic. After paying over their money they are shown a door through which they walk, ending up in a new room on the other side – in Mykonos.
The doors they travel through, next from Mykonos to London and finally to San Francisco, reminded me very much of the railway stations in The Underground Railroad, a representation of the refugee experience that speeds up Saeed and Nadia’s journey. This second half has a different feel to the first, partly as their relationship begins to stagnate and they find that, removed from the familiar, they have less in common. This begins to show most clearly as they land in London, living in a squat with other refugees. Nadia relishes living with a mix of people, attending meetings with a group of older Nigerian women, while Saeed travels to another squat to meet with men from his own country.
I can see why this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker. Imaginative and thought-provoking, the prose is deceptively simple, so that I whizzed through the first half in one sitting. The concept of the doors was imaginative but I wondered whether they made Saeed and Nadia’s situation appear too light. I didn’t fear for them as I imagined I would. Danger is always close by and yet the distance that the third person narration provides made me feel as though I was watching from too far away to feel more engaged. Perhaps this was the point, just as we watch tragedies occurring on the news every day without batting an eyelid. The disconnect felt real then, in a way that a more graphic and descriptive style might have failed at. I will be thinking of this book for a long time.