Exit West is a novel full of complexities and commentary on migration, relationships, death, war, loss, and the evolutions of our identities over time. What one has to wonder, amid all these layers, is why Hamid chose magical realism as the framework through which to tell this story. Arguably, he could have written a realistic fiction novel that could tell a distinctly similar narrative–or at least communicate the same themes–without the use of magical doors.
I would claim, however, that magical realism is a critical part of Hamid’s story. Through the clearly fantastical element of the doors, Hamid creates a world that is just removed enough from our reality for him to comment on modern society while maintaining a certain distance from it. It’s not hard to draw connections between Saeed and Nadia’s story and real-world debates around immigration, international tensions, racism, and xenophobia. Hamid does not try to hide those themes, but he also doesn’t comment on them directly. He creates this world that is almost ours, but with the distinct difference of the doors, in order to explore these ideas in a more theoretical context. Exit West is the story of our world, if something were to happen tomorrow that destroyed our notion of nations and borders as we know them. That theoretical gives Hamid room to explore vast societal issues without directly commenting on any current events. It allows him to create a vividly relevant novel without referencing any specific real-world events, which both makes his commentary more powerful–as it can stand on its own, without the need for outside context–and helps the reader maintain a Nabokov-style impersonal imagination throughout the story.