At just over 200 pages, Exit West reads like a meditation; Hamid's style is enthralling, lulling even. Then, at the end of a paragraph, he ends with an axiom which snaps one back into the reality of what just took place in the story; axioms of migration, or truths that come embedded in the experience of living through war and being displaced.
The story is of Saeed and Nadia negotiating and navigating their daily lives, at first as uneventfully as one would in a country at peacetime with routines that provide meaning and a sense of belonging. Gradually, war corrupts these routines and rituals, where the once-trivial act is now something to be deliberated over such as what road Saeed takes to get to Nadia's place. What once may have been fixtures of daily life - the coffee shop, the store down the street, or even that one had a job at an office - slowly disintegrate as offices close, coffee shops shutdown, or worse are reduced to rubble.
Saeed and Nadia manage to build a relationship through this, they both process these events through the filter of their own experiences. Nadia, a strongly independent woman who left her family to live and work on her own, is keen on leaving the country and has very little holding her back. Saeed, more contemplative and introspective about his responsibilities to his family, his faith, wants to leave but has more holding him back.
When rumors of magical doors that get people out of the city surface, Nadia and Saeed take the opportunity and find themselves in the stream of migration. Here, Hamid chooses to shroud the actual process of migration behind these "magical doors" and thankfully so. It would have been easy to get mired in the detail with much opportunity for info-dumping of how one actually shifts from one country to another. That is not Hamid's focus. His focus remains on Nadia, Saeed, and simply the life, or lives they lead, at each destination.
The rest of the novel reveals Nadia and Saeed negotiating new lives and daily living at each stop. In this, the story reveals a foundational axiom: life and routines continue and even maintain our dignity. There's a scene where Nadia takes a shower after their first journey through a magical door. Having taken that shower, she's repulsed by the clothes she'd just taken off and the thought of putting those on. So she washes the clothes next. Perhaps they were a reminder of what basic things were denied her until now.
Even as the two attempt to recreate a life, the migration begins to take its toll on their relationship. This is not in any dramatic way; quite the opposite. Hamid reveals to us how each is interpreting and internalizing their situation every step of the way and we find that they both do so differently. The fact that Nadia left her parents even before the war started, and we never read whether she thinks of them afterwards, punctuates how untethered, except to herself and to those of her own choosing, Nadia is. Saeed, being the introspective one with a deep sense of responsibility, tries to maintain some connection to his people and his faith.
At the end of it, Hamid strips away the headlines and the "newsiness" surrounding refugees and takes us right next to them; he ignores statistics, he ignores the reasons for the war. He ignores who's right or wrong. Most importantly, he is indifferent to the why of the situation. He presents to us lives and relationships and thoughts and motivations. The story leaves us in a meditative state, thinking about what's next for Nadia and Saeed; thinking about what's next for these people who've come through magical doors.