By Mohsin Hamid, Riverhead Books, 231 pages, $26
Mohsin Hamid’s dynamic yet lapidary books have all explored the convulsive changes overtaking the world, as tradition and modernity clash headlong, and as refugees — fleeing war or poverty or hopelessness — try to make their way to safer ground. His compelling new novel, Exit West, is no exception, recounting the story of the migrants Saeed and Nadia, who leave an unnamed country in the midst of a civil war and journey to Greece, England and eventually the United States in an effort to invent new lives for themselves.
The first half of their story is about how war warps everyday life; the second half, a tale of globalisation and its discontents. Writing in spare, crystalline prose, Hamid conveys the experience of living in a city under siege with sharp, stabbing immediacy. He shows just how swiftly ordinary life — with all its banal rituals and routines — can morph into the defensive crouch of life in a war zone, with fears of truck bombs and sniper fire and armed soldiers at checkpoints becoming a daily reality, along with constant surveillance from drones and helicopters. He also captures how insidiously violence alters the calculus of daily life: how windows with beautiful views become a liability; how funerals become smaller, more rushed affairs because of fighting in the streets.
The fiercely independent Nadia is feverishly keen to find a way out of the besieged city, and she and her more introspective boyfriend, Saeed, soon find an agent, who, for a fee, promises to supply them with an exit plan.
There have been rumours of magical doors that whisk people away to strange and distant lands, and the door that Saeed and Nadia enter transports them to a beach on the Greek island of Mykonos, where hundreds of other migrants are living in tents and lean-tos in a makeshift refugee camp. Later, the couple will try other doorways that take them to other countries, other continents. “It was said in those days,” Hamid writes, “that the passage was both like dying and like being born.”
The device of a magical door is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which four children find a secret passageway, through a wardrobe in a spare room, to the mysterious realm of Narnia. There animals can talk, and good and evil openly battle. In summary, it might sound perversely counterintuitive of Hamid to use a fairy-tale-like device as a way to move his characters from their war-torn homeland to a new life in the West. How, the potential reader might ask, can the treacherous journeys undertaken by refugees — across seas or deserts; at the mercy of the sun, rain, cold, heat, hunger, thirst and unscrupulous smugglers; among other untold random terrors — be condensed into a simple step through a portal?
Hamid, however, is less interested in the physical hardships faced by refugees in their crossings than in the psychology of exile and the haunting costs of loss and dislocation. Having left their families, their villages or their countries, many of the characters in his earlier novels, like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, also felt like outsiders — yearning to escape the bounds of family or class or expectation, and yet at the same time homesick for some sense of roots and belonging. And in Exit West, Hamid does a harrowing job of conveying what it is like to leave behind family members, and what it means to leave home, which, however dangerous or oppressive it’s become, still represents everything that is familiar and known.
For Saeed, prayer remains a way to connect with his dead mother and his beloved father, who refused to make the journey with him and Nadia. “He prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way,” Hamid writes.
Saeed thinks that prayer was “about being a man, being one of the men, a ritual that connected him to adulthood and to the notion of being a particular sort of man, a gentleman, a gentle man, a man who stood for community and faith and kindness and decency, a man, in other words, like his father.”
The shy, sweet Saeed is changed by the experience of exile. Regret about leaving his father behind, disillusion over being swindled by another migrant, bitterness over his new improvisatory existence — such emotions take their toll. Nadia is the more adaptive, adventurous one, but even her resilience changes the dynamic of their relationship, which begins to labour under the weight of their uncertain existence, their enforced closeness and dependency on each other, the worries of finding food and shelter, or work, every day.
To open out his novel, Hamid intercuts the story of Nadia and Saeed with short, strobe-lit glimpses of other people’s stories around the world in a fashion that recalls a technique David Mitchell has employed in novels like Ghostwritten. It’s a technique that underscores the simultaneity of time and experience in our globalised world, reminding us of both the amazing similarities and vast differences among countries and individuals across an increasingly interconnected planet.
By mixing the real and the surreal, and using old fairy-tale magic, Hamid has created a fictional universe that captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines, while at the same time painting an unnervingly dystopian portrait of what might lie down the road. The world in Exit West is, in many respects, an extrapolation of the world we live in now, with wars like the one in Syria turning cities into war zones; with political crises, warp-speed technological changes, and growing tensions between nativists and migrants threatening to upend millions of lives.
Hamid writes that in many places — like the San Francisco Bay Area, one stop on Saeed and Nadia’s journey — “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, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now.”
By Mohsin Hamid, Riverhead Books, 231 pages, $26