by Mohsin Hamid
British-Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel is a love story. No: it’s a magic realist epic in which characters cross continents in the blink of an eye (or, to be precise, the opening of a mysterious portal). No: Exit West is a rousing, if complex hymn about migration and cultural displacement. No: it’s a novel spliced with disarming short stories. No: it’s a searing portrait of 21st-century war and the resulting refugee crises that Western governments are routinely failing to solve.
Exit West is many things, sometimes all in the turn of a single sentence. At the centre of it are Saeed and Nadia, two young professionals who meet in an unnamed city in an unnamed country: the most likely candidates are Iraq or Syria, but it needn’t be either. Saeed wears a beard, more stubble than the full monty. Nadia sports a flowing black robe. Neither is religious, or not yet. When Saeed plucks up the courage to ask Nadia about her attire, she smiles: “So men don’t f*** with me.”
The city’s mood in these opening exchanges, as our lovers move slowly but surely towards each other, is calm, liberal, but already undercut with menace. Our narrator knows more than his characters, and has the disarming habit of interrupting the linear flow to let the reader in on the impending disaster: “War would soon erode the facade of their building as though it had accelerated time itself, a day’s toll outpacing that of a decade.”
The friction between the city’s calm surfaces and violent undercurrents is typical of a novel that plays polarities off against each other: light and dark, male and female, home and abroad, love and hate, peace and war, the ordinary and the unthinkable. This last pair describes characters who exist in a rising state of denial about the seemingly inconceivable events they witness.
Having noted, for example, that Saeed and Nadia met at an evening class (on “corporate identity and product branding”), the narrator adds calmly: “It might seem odd that in cities teetering on the edge of the abyss, young people still go to class […] but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”
The narrator’s calm tone makes the prospect of militant violence destabilising. The inexorable, but almost imperceptible descent into chaos is enacted by the most shocking passage of the novel. As civilisation wavers, Saeed’s father feels cheered by the sight of young boys playing football. Then, he realises, the boys are actually young men “and they were not playing with a ball but with the severed head of a goat, and he thought, barbarians, but then it dawned upon him that this was the head not of a goat but of a human being, with hair and a beard”. The stately progress of the sentence traces not only the old man’s journey from joy towards disbelief, but the way that reality itself seems to resist the shock and awe of brutal transformation.
This dance between horror and normality ends with the death of Saeed’s mother, who is shot by a sniper when she is searching her car for a missing earring. “The end of the world can be cosy at times,” our narrator notes almost soothingly.
Hamid has already proposed the means of escape through a couple of jarring interruptions to the narrative flow. A man is suddenly described appearing in a woman’s bedroom in Australia. We assume he is there to do the sleeping woman violence. In fact, he is fleeing it: a refugee transported, mystically perhaps, to a wealthy Western city. Soon millions, including Saeed and Nadia, will follow.
It is a daring device in a novel that has, until then, so acutely engaged with realism. Obvious precursors for Hamid’s magic doors lie in science fiction: Robert Heinlein in his alternate universe masterpiece, Job (1984), Philip K. Dick in his fable about fate and free will, Adjustment Team (1954), or Stephen King in his alternative-history blockbuster 11/22/63 (2011).
What it means for Exit West is that Hamid is less interested in the drama of evacuation than its consequences, both political and philosophical. He writes poignantly about the pain of fleeing homelands: “for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind”.
His main intent in tracing Saeed and Nadia’s journey to Mykonos, then London and finally California is to send a two-fold warning. First, conflicts that seem remote to people far outside a theatre of war can suddenly be hammered home with a vengeance. Second, anyone who believes the devastation wrought on Raqqa or Mosul could never happen in Washington or Hong Kong might want to think again.
The novel’s central masterstroke is to mirror the slow, improbable disintegration of Saeed and Nadia’s home city with that of London itself. Its many empty houses are filled with refugees fleeing conflicts from across the world – the Middle East, Nigeria. Then, the “native” population turns against the migrants. Mob violence prompts the government to send in the military. While this is familiar to Saeed and Nadia, it is a world-changing shock to “native Britains”.
Exit West has been hailed as a dystopian classic, which seems to misunderstand either dystopias or the novel itself. While Hamid portrays the horror of sectarian violence and the corresponding intolerance of wealthy nations shrinking from the chaos they helped foment, his vision is capacious enough to incorporate that human virtue most elusive right now: hope.
While the world and its people in Exit West teeter constantly on the brink of mutually assured destruction, the novel resists the apocalypse described so vividly by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). This owes much to Saeed and Nadia’s nuanced, and grown-up, romantic odyssey. True, the couple that ends the novel is very different from the optimistic, intimate lovers who begin it. One nice, late touch inverts the relationship between the big and small pictures: now “major events distracted them from the more mundane realities of life”, rather than vice versa.
But no matter the hardships they face, within their relationship and without, Saeed and Nadia endure with their humanity intact. As Saeed gazes down on a London being rebuilt by a combination of migrant and native endeavour, “at the almost unimaginable scale of what they were undertaking he felt they were remodelling the Earth itself”. Here, perhaps, is the boldest trick in Hamid’s humane fable. Not the invention of magic doors, nor his representation of bloodthirsty terrorists or remote, unfeeling governments, but a vision of a world transformed for worse, and then miraculously better. What happens next is, as usual, up to us.