As I closed the book on Friday afternoon, I felt a profound sense of melancholy. Hamid’s articulation of the complexity of human relationships is beautifully done, and left me feeling nostalgic about relationships in my own life where the passage of time caused irreversable change. The clever and subtle hints of a divide between Saeed and Nadia are placed carefully long before their physical separation occurs, and the truth and humanity in those hints is what makes Hamid such a great writer. Even though that truth caused me to revisit regrets of a past life, I was not worse off for the opportunity to reflect. It must be said, however, that the change that comes with the inexorable passage of time is not always something to fear or to cry over.
When Nadia walks by the musicians in the migrant camp, she says that people were calling this time the “new jazz age.” The magic doors of the new world of Exit West have thrown people from all around together, and Nadia witnesses the creation of new and exciting music as a result. Although the circumstances of the substantial migration in Hamid’s novel are very different to the forced migration of African-Americans during the Atlantic Slave Trade, who of course created the blues, out of which came swing, bebop, hard bop, and post bop (jazz is a problematic word that generalizes this music but that is a separate issue), the beauty and innovation within the music is what connects the past with the future that Hamid has created. This scene in particular gave me hope for the future, however uncertain that future may be. The inevitability of change as time passes, in this case, is positive and wonderful to behold to both Nadia and the reader.
Whenever a novel or film concludes with a distinctly happy result for the protagonist/main character/Matt Damon I am reminded that the great escape from real life is over. It doesn’t matter that I know that Frodo and Sam will succeed, I will still read with bated breath as they make their final ascent to Mount Doom, and put the book down with a smile on my face after Wormtongue slays Saruman (putting off the sadness that is bound to engulf me when Frodo leaves Middle-Earth). Days after finishing Exit West, though, the conversation between Saeed and Nadia in their home city still pervades my thoughts. Navigating human relationships, in a world of chaos, is hard, and Hamid illustrates this constant struggle in a way that makes me consider the choices I have made and will make in my own life.
Being a human being is complicated, and while there are certainly times when I would rather watch Daniel Craig shoot bad guys with his Aston Martin than reflect upon my existence, I’m grateful that I read this novel.