- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 4 hours and 42 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Penguin Audio
- Audible.com Release Date: March 7, 2017
- Whispersync for Voice: Ready
- Language: English
- ASIN: B01MY19CM1
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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Exit West: A Novel Audiobook – Unabridged
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First, Exit West is narrated by an omniscient narrator with a cool, detached voice. This adds to the sense that the events it describes are normal, unsurprising. It tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, who live in an unnamed city in a country on the brink of civil war.
Saeed has light stubble and Nadia wears a black robe, at a time when people could still choose what to wear, ‘so these choices meant something’. They become involved and in contrast to their appearances, it is Nadia who has broken with expectations by living independently, estranged from her family, while Saeed still lives at home.
At first they do the things new couples do. They text incessantly. They use recreational drugs by moonlight. They listen to music and negotiate their attitudes to sex. But the civil war takes first their freedom and then their safety. It seems like the only option is to escape.
Saeed and Nadia leave through one of the ‘doors’ by which refugees leave war zones, generally after handing over money to traffickers. The ‘doors’ open and close apparently randomly, offering an abrupt dislocation from one place to another. It suggests something magical, without human agency, while the reality is anything but.
While Saeed and Nadia’s home city is unnamed, the events described feel contemporary and real. However the places where they go after they leave, which are named, known locations, are subtly different, as if we’re looking at a possible future or an alternate reality. They are in social upheaval, they are more segregated, even less hopeful than they are now.
Then there are vignettes throughout the book interrupting the main narrative, showing immigrants and refugees in other regions suddenly appearing through doors, as if to remind us that this is happening everywhere, all the time.
Saeed and Nadia are well realised characters, at once unique and recognisable. As they leave their home the narrative fragments and their stories become less absorbing. It is as if in becoming refugees, whose main preoccupation is survival, whose choices are circumscribed, they have less time to be psychologically complex and interesting, not only to a reader but perhaps to themselves.
So while the story didn’t engage me throughout the book, the ideas did, and still do. Exit West challenges you to think in new ways about a familiar issue, to question what you understand when you see generic terms like refugee or migrant applied to millions of individuals, who each has their home, their emotional life, their door, and has to make the decision to take that chance, or not, while they can.
I received a copy of Exit West from the publisher via Netgalley.
As Colson Whitehead in THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD has done recently by making the means of escape for slaves an actual railroad system underground, Mr. Hamid also engages in magical realism here: Saeed and Nadia simply step through black doors first to get out of Dubai; other dark doors lead them immediately to Amsterdam, London and more points west. A brilliant touch. Then there is the author’s language: the stars are “like a splash of milk in the sky.” But the sky can also be “drone-crossed.” When two men, described only as “wrinkled” and “elderly,” engage in a conversation with long gaps that are almost unnoticed by them, “as two ancient trees would not notice a few minutes are hours that passed without a breeze.”
Amid all the danger, suspense and difficulty involved in Saeed and Nadia’s journey, Mr. Hamid also makes profound and moving statements. Saeed understands that “to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.” As he gets further away from home, Saeed prays more. “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, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge to one another. . . it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world. . .”
Running across these kinds of statements is a perfect reminder of why we read good literature. Mr. Hamid’s THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, nominated for a Booker several years ago, blew me away. EXIT WEST is not a bad runner-up.