We read much in the daily papers about the plight of refugees, driven from their homes by the trauma of civil war. Exit West is a fictitious account, spare but powerful, of two such refugees, a young couple who grow romantically connected and, after struggling to survive in their homes, eventually see no future other than escape.
Reading Exit West is an intellectual exercise. I never bonded with the characters in an emotional way, though that certainly wasn’t the point. It isn’t a long book. But it isn’t easy reading. Every word, every sentence counts. Time and again, I had to re-read a paragraph that I had inadvertently read too quickly.
I wasn’t wild about the supernatural elements that the author wove in. For instance, rather than describe the physical journey to a new place, he used the metaphor of doors through which the characters pass and then emerge, exhausted and hungry or sick, on the other side, in another place. Once you buy into this contrivance, you begin to doubt the reality of other things in the story. Toward the end, I almost felt I was reading a post-apocalyptic novel.
That said, there is much to appreciate in Exit West. The writing is amazing. I was horrified at times by what the characters saw and felt, all skillfully described by the author. Having finished the book and looking back, what stays with me is not the plight of the central couple, but the plight of displaced persons as a whole. Perhaps this was the author’s goal?