One of the most distinct motifs I picked up on when first reading Exit West were mentions of the past, usually meant to highlight a change that had taken place within the world of the story. Most of those changes are rather negative; lines like “The cinema they remembered so fondly had been replaced by a shopping arcade for computers and electronic peripherals,” “The Mars it showed was more detailed as well, though it was of course a Mars from another moment, a bygone Mars,” and “The family that used to run the place, after arriving in the city following the Second World War, and flourishing there for three generations, had recently sold up and emigrated to Canada,” all denote the loss of something (13, 16, 23). Sometimes the changed versions, the ones that had something missing, were more modern, which the rise of technology and increase in light pollution from the first two lines show.
Modernity is also a sort of motif in the novel, since Hamid often comments on aspects of modern city life within the novel: phone usage, drugs, commuting, emailing, going to Chinese restaurants, etc. While this was intended to push back against the Western perception of cities in underdeveloped nations, it also solidifies the book’s place in a contemporary era. But that only makes the parts where the past is mentioned stand out more.
When thinking over the purpose of these continual references to the past, I remember the quote from the very start of the book that details how “…one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put to a stop our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does” (4). I believe these references enhance the spontaneity of life and the finality of sudden changes that the quote talks about: the cinema is a cinema until it’s remodeled, and the family will run the same Chinese restaurant until they move away. There have been irreversible changes made before, and they will continue to occur, especially as Saeed and Nadia’s cities begin to fall to the militants, which is a very severe example of change, but nevertheless change is something we all expereience. We all have a past, things have changed for all of us, this will continue to be so; these ideas add to the novel’s focus on transience and the human experience.