Exit West is an exquisite love story that subtly yet powerfully combines searing realism and psychological acuity with a touch of magic to illuminate the terrors of war and exile as well as the miracles of survival. Thoughtful and gentle Saeed and rebellious Nadia enter into a tenuous courtship as their unnamed Middle Eastern city convulses under the brutal rule of militants and the bombing raids meant to defeat them. The two hear rumors about mysterious doors that serve as portals to distant places, and eventually join thousands of refugees from around the world fleeing violence and environmental catastrophe and forming new, desperately improvised communities in disparate lands. The novels below also dramatize the traumatic struggles of migrants, attaining a similar degree of emotional intimacy and transcendent wonder.
And the Mountains Echoed
by Khaled Hosseini
An immense, ancient oak in an Afghan village is emblematic of the complexly branching story lines in Hosseini’s profound and spellbinding saga of family bonds and unlikely pairings forged by chance, choice, and necessity. With limbs reaching to Kabul, Paris, San Francisco, and a Greek Island, Hosseini’s novel follows the fate of twin sisters, two male cousins, and a disfigured girl of great valor and a boy destined to become a plastic surgeon in a world of trauma, tyranny, war, crime, and lies.
The Bones of Grace
The gripping third novel in Anam’s bestselling Bengal trilogy, following A Golden Age (2007) and The Good Muslim (2011), tells the story of a new, adopted member of the family, Zubaida, a fiercely independent young woman from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and paleontology grad student at Harvard. Just before leaving for a dig in Pakistan, she meets Elijah, who has just dropped out of a philosophy doctoral program. Anam writes of romance, identity, professional choices, and such issues as the standing of women in traditional societies and the Bangladeshi ship-breaking industry.
by J. M. G. Le Clezio, Translated by C. Dickson
In poetic language at once piercingly realistic and rhapsodically supernatural, Nobel laureate Le Clezio tells the dramatic stories of two mystical, resilient children of the North African desert. Nour endures a horrific forced march across the desert just prior to WWI; decades later, Lalla, a shantytown seer channeling the hidden life force of the forbidding desert, must flee Morocco for Marseilles, where she witnesses the misery of other despised immigrants.
The Golden Legend
by Nadeem Aslam
Massud and Narghis are husband-and-wife architects and guardians of a treasured library, until Massud is killed in an altercation involving an American spy. Meanwhile, Narghis’ adopted daughter, Helen, a journalist who was born Christian but pretends to be Muslim, falls in love with Imran, a Kashmiri gone AWOL from a terrorist training camp, and the two seek refuge in the remains of a mosque the architects designed with the idealistic dream of bringing together rival sects. Acts of cruelty and political violence alternate with wistful moments filled with longing for a gentler time.
by Chris Cleave
Little Bee, smart and stoic, knows two people in England, journalists she chanced upon on a Nigerian beach after fleeing a massacre in her village, a grisly outbreak in an off-the-radar oil war. After sneaking into England and escaping a rural “immigration removal” center, she arrives at Andrew and Sarah’s London suburb home only to find that the violence that haunts her has also poisoned them. In an unnerving blend of dread, wit, and beauty, Cleave’s eviscerating novel offers stinging insights into the failure of compassion in the world of refugees.
by Teju Cole
Nigerian immigrant Julius, a graduate psychiatry student who has broken up with his girlfriend, rambles meditatively around New York City, then continues his thoughtful wanderings in Europe, and Nigeria, meeting intriguing people and engaging in long, musing conversations. When he returns to New York, he meets a Nigerian woman who profoundly changes the way he sees himself.
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
MacArthur fellow Nguyen’s intimate, supple, and bracing stories about Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. embrace the supernatural and the all-too real pain of rupture and loss as young and old, male and female migrants embark on the baffling process of acclimation. These are intricate tales of piercing clarity, poignant emotional nuance, and searing insights into the trauma of war and the long chill of exile, the assault on identity and the resilience of the self, and the fragility and preciousness of memories.
The Storyteller of Marrakesh
by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
Hassan, a storyteller in Marrakesh, annually retells the story of a young foreign couple who appeared in the marketplace, then abruptly disappeared. Signs and portents of danger are recounted, and the beautiful young woman is remembered both as dressed in a traditional djellaba and headscarf and wearing jeans and a T-shirt. In this richly descriptive and mysterious tale, Roy-Battachaya focuses on love and the elusive nature of truth, while also considering contemporary Islamic culture and how its core remains unchanged by time, geopolitics, globalization, or religious enmity.
Donna Seaman is Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a frequent presenter at literary events and programs. Seaman’s new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.