Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books, 2017; 231pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
I’m always impressed by Mohsin Hamid’s writing, which achieves emotional heights without needing to set much foundation. This is particularly true of his latest novel, Exit West. Although it is essentially a rumination on our current moment of global displacement and migration, Hamid spends little time establishing the facts of global conflicts or distinguishing the ways in which the novel’s world differs from ours. His focus is entirely on his protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, who meet just as their unnamed nation begins its descent into civil war. They experience an intimate relationship that evolves rapidly from one extreme to the next. Before they can agree on whether to get married, violence in their city forces Nadia to move in with Saeed and it’s not long until they must abandon their country completely. The novel’s brisk narration emulates the quickening pace of a life, in that moments worth savoring pass too quickly. Hamid prefers not to belabor such moments, allowing readers little time to reckon with emotions and questions that are bound to accumulate at a staggering rate. As a result, this novel that traces the somber movements of refugees through war zones and tent cities evokes feelings of exhilaration that are so unexpected, they almost seem inappropriate for the subject matter.
This exhilaration is enhanced by an element of magical realism which is implicitly referenced in the novel’s title. When Saeed and Nadia first determine to find a way out of their country, they encounter rumors of “doors that [can] take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country.” As it turns out, these rumors aren’t exaggerations or some sort of code for smuggling routes. Certain doorways across the globe are discovered to actually be wormholes, allowing someone to open a door in Nigeria and walk through to London, for example. This has the effect of erasing the harsh realities of migrants crossing seas in overcrowded boats or traversing barren borderlands with limited supplies. But it also allows Hamid to write scenes that use science fiction to evoke the visceral sense of invasion felt by “natives” in the novel. In one such scene, a migrant crawls out of a sleeping woman’s closet door and into her bedroom. Her husband is away on business, but the migrant escapes through a window before she wakes. The doors allow for other improbable scenarios, like the emergence of Saeed, Nadia, and nearly 50 other migrants into the vacant but decadent hallways of some wealthy family’s English summer home. Local authorities find themselves unable to evict the squatters without laying waste to the neighborhood, and the protagonists enjoy an extended period of semi-luxury at the expense of the rich.
Despite this element of science fiction, Exit West is not a conceit to any post-apocalyptic vision of our future. In fact, the novel describes a planet in which “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end.” War doesn’t consume the countries becoming crowded with migrants. Violence exists on the periphery, but Hamid’s focus never wavers from Saeed and Nadia, who are forced to pursue romance under conditions that require them to be so dependent on one another, they’re prevented from speaking honestly about their differences. The novel’s rapid pace is mirrored by the quickness with which its characters must learn to navigate their new environments, both geographically and interpersonally.