When the 2017 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced, I was glad to see that Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 had made the cut. Also on that list was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a story of the relationship between two people and their decision to leave their homeland as it is torn apart by war.
The Situation: Saeed is a thoughtful, dutiful boy who lives with his parents. Nadia lives in an apartment by herself after deciding that living under her parent's roof was not for her. The two meet in an evening class, and although it took more than one attempt, Saeed eventually convinces Nadia to come have coffee with him. While their country implodes around them, the two young students manage to foster a relationship, and eventually Nadia moves in with Saeed as she realizes the danger of a woman living alone as the situation outside becomes more intense. And as things escalate, it becomes clear that the idea of leaving the entire country will have to be more than just a passing thought. More and more, the two begin hearing about doors that open up into other parts of the world. If this is true, then there could be hope to escape and begin a new life in a safer location.
The Problem: The doors may make it easier to get to a safe location, but the usual issues regarding refugees and immigration still persist. With the amount of countries experiencing war and conflict, the locations the doors lead to suffer overpopulation and their own brand of conflict. There are many doors of course, but the ones to the best locations are heavily guarded, while the others are ignored due to lack of interest. After the first move, Saeed and Nadia soon find the need to move again. It is one thing to gain safe passage through a door that leads to a better location, but it is another thing to be allowed to stay in that location. Also, there is the strain that the situation can put on Saeed and Nadia's relationship. There may be a natural sense of loyalty to each other with every decision and step they take in their journey, but it may not be enough to hold them together forever.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is often categorized under magical realism, fantasy, and literary fiction. Human beings migrating from one place to another is nothing strange or new, but being able to use a door to quickly go from a Greek island to the city of London is not something we are familiar with. Hamid gives a twist to the story of the refugee fleeing their homeland in search of a safer place to live. And while he may have made the actual journey a bit easier, everything else stayed the same, from the hostilities they face from those who inhabit their new location, to the hoops they have to jump through in order to gain access to the doors. Also, Saeed and Nadia's relationship proves to not be immune to the stresses of being a refugee. They always look after each other, and stay close to each other, but the romantic feelings are certainly difficult to maintain. While they are certainly the focus of the novel, the story does often move away from them in order to briefly talk about someone else in another part of the world and their experience with either a door, war, or the migration situation.
My Verdict: This is certainly an inventive and interesting take on a story we have heard before. Instead of having the characters make the long arduous journey across a country and a border, Hamid allows them to simply step through a door, though the argument could be made as to whether this actually makes anything easier. Just because a journey is made quicker does not mean it is safer or better. My only issue is that while Saeed seems fully fleshed out, Nadia seems to be little more than the cliched fiercely independent girl that no one (including Saeed sometimes) seems to know how to react to. But their relationship feels real, as well as the issues that come with it. It is a fairly short novel, so even if you find yourself less than interested about a quarter of the way through, I suggest continuing if only to find out where the couple's journey through various doors finally lands them.
Favorite Moment: When Saeed's father begins to regard Nadia as a daughter rather than just his son's friend.
Favorite Character: Saeed is as steadfast and loyal as they come. His consistency serves the pair well as they go on their often perilous journey.
Recommended Reading: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini also tells of choices made that take characters around the globe and how their lives are altered as a result.