Exit West by Moshin Hamid is a story about two people, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in an unnamed country, they go from being friends to lovers until their city is launched into a civil war and their lives are ultimately changed forever. Throughout the story there are mentions of doors that could potentially lead to anywhere in the globe introduced in the snippets of minor characters and their ordeals with them. The couple eventually finding themselves going through one of these portals in the hopes of finding a haven. The story from here is their account of the places they visit, how they manage to survive among the many hardships thrown at them, and the feeling of estrangement as they develop different ways to cope with their situation finally culminating in them going their separate ways. Among the multitude of themes explored in the novel a key theme stands out throughout the course of the story, that being how fragile life is, both in the physical realm and the emotional realm. The idea is explored and expanded upon by the events our protagonists experience and the interactions of the minor characters within their own acts in the novel.
Saeed is among the first to be hit with this stark reality of how life can change at any given moment when his mother is killed by a stray bullet while performing the mundane task of looking for an earring in her car. The effect this has on him is felt across multiple spectrums, in the physical aspect Saeed has lost his mother the person who gave birth to him and watched over him his entire life. The loss of his mother also pours over onto the father which results in him wanting to stay behind because Saeed’s mother, his wife, is dead and he cannot seem to bear the thought of leaving her behind given that he has spent a significant portion of his life with her at his side. This notion is represented well when the author writes “… Saeed’s father slept by himself in his bedroom, a room where he had slept most of his life but where he could not recall the last instance he had slept alone and which for this reason was no longer completely familiar to him.” (Hamid, pg.101). To Saeed’s father it is just too much for him to walk away when Saeed and Nadia leave for the door. The simple event of Saeed’s mother dying ultimately results in Saeed losing not one but both of his parents, this creates a void in his life as within a matter of days he has lost the people to whom he looked up to and respected. Although later in the novel it is discovered that Saeed maintains a connection with them whenever he prays as it takes him to a childhood memory of when he first asked his mother how to pray and a later memory where his father asks him if he would like to join the men in a communal prayer. The importance of pray to Saeed is best narrated with these passages “When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents…” (Hamid, 256) and “… this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of out being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry…” (Hamid, 256). While Saeed has found a healthy way to cope with the loss of his parents it cannot be underestimated the weight that was put on his shoulders burdened him deeply.
Nadia also experiences some strife in her own life prior to the outbreak of the war, when she decides to move out as an unmarried woman. Her act of independence sends a shockwave that is felt for the rest of her life as her family effectively disowns her for leaving. “…something all of them, all four, for the rest of their lives, regretted, but which none of them would ever act to repair, partly out of stubbornness, partly out of bafflement at how to go about doing so, and partly because the impending descent of their city into the abyss would come before they realized that they had lost the chance.” (Hamid, 31), the quote capsulizes much more than just the theme but also touches on that the idea that sometimes we are able to help push the tide back if we are willing to extend a hand and swallow our pride. Nadia never sees her family again after that point and sometimes wonders to herself what fate befell them. This strongly ties into the theme because family is considered a crucial pillar in the lives of most people as it helps shape the people they will become for the better or worse. For Nadia their presence is missed although not explicitly stated, there is a moment later in the novel where Nadia finds a sense of belonging amongst strangers in the council in their acceptance of her, in conjunction with how she attains a special status among the children almost in a way that mirrors how siblings admired their older siblings.
Lastly one of the minor characters has a moment of their own. An accountant who lives in Kentish town was of cusp of ending his own life until he rediscovers a feeling he once held as a child from peering into the darkness held within one of the doors. The experience also causes the accountant to reach back into his childhood where he thinks of his mother as she was the one who read the books which instilled the emotion that would later spark his change of heart. Sadly, his mother was afflicted with an unnamed illness that morphed and destroyed her gentleness as she was robbed of her speech and personality, this event also caused a change with his father who would became distant as a result. These events highlight the theme, as the suffering of one individual not only has their own life changed and ultimately erased but the from their suffering new ones are creating further ripples impacting how other carry themselves. Despite the sadness within his life the accountant finds resolve to carry on forward in life best showcased within the following quote, “…and a message that said he would not be returning, but not to worry, he felt something, he felt something for a change…” (Hamid,166). This further pushes the theme as the man found new courage to move on in life at a moment of total despair essentially pivoting the direction his life was taking.
In conclusion one of the key themes in Exit West is the fragility of life, how in an instant a persons life can be extinguished under the most normal of circumstances, how one can find themselves performing a daily ritual in remembrance of the past, how ones own actions can cause a rift to be born between loved ones not necessarily in the action that birthed the rift but in the unwillingness to extend a hand and mend the wound was where the true rift lied, and how even in the darkest moments of life where one finds themselves ready to take the final dream one can crawl out of the abyss and walk towards the light found within life.
Hamid, Moshin. Exit West. New York: Riverhead Books, 2017.
Note: Page numbers are in accordance with iBooks edition of Exit West