“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war,” Mohsin Hamid’s slim wonder of a novel begins, “a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.” Because this is a love story, he does find the courage to invite her out for coffee a scant page later; instant messages follow, then a real dinner date, a shared latenight spliff, a first kiss. But if the portent of that opening sentence signals some of what’s to come, it hardly begins to hint at the extraordinary places it will go.
Between the two of them, Nadia is the bold one: Defiantly single, she rides a motorbike to her mindless office job and lives alone in her own little studio with an old record player, a pile of scratchy vinyl, and a private terrace for stargazing and smoking the joints she coaxes Saeed into sharing. He’s quieter, a good boy from a good family who still lives at home with his elderly parents and works hard to please his boss at a busy ad agency, even as their unnamed Middle Eastern metropolis falls further into chaos. Entire neighborhoods are bombed out of existence or captured by rebels; curfews and checkpoints materialize overnight; one day, cell-phone reception simply disappears, “turned off as if by flipping a switch.”
Leaving the country seems impossible; visas are as hopeless as fresh produce or a Wi-Fi signal. But there are rumors of another way out, secret doors that lead to far-flung places untouched by combat: a sleepy suburb of Sydney or a side street in Tokyo, Tijuana, Marrakech, Mykonos, Rio. Nadia and Saeed take the chance, and begin a new kind of adventure—one that Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) unfurls in deceptively simple prose, as spare and dreamlike as a fable. But Exit West’s mystical spin isn’t a gloss on geopolitical reality; nearly every page reflects the tangible impact of life during wartime—not just the blood and gun smoke of daily bombardments, but the quieter collateral damage that seeps in. The true magic of the book is how it manages to render it all in a narrative so moving, audacious, and indelibly human. A