Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books, $26, 231 pages)
WORDS BY HARVEY FREEDENBERG
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of the end of 2015, 65.3 million people — one of every 113 people alive on this planet — were displaced from their homes by war or persecution. For all the attention that massive flow of humanity has generated, a crisis of this magnitude deserves a work of art worthy of the subject. Mohsin Hamid’s haunting novel, Exit West, is such a work. Focused on a pair of young lovers fleeing civil war in their homeland, it’s a moving exposition both of the plight of the refugee and of the intense gravitational pull of family and home.
In novels like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, Hamid, a Pakistani by birth who’s spent considerable time in London, New York and California, has displayed a firm command of the intensely interconnected quality of the modern world. And while Exit West feels as contemporary as the latest news headline from a shore where a boatload of desperate refugees has landed, there’s a timeless quality to it that provides the stamp of enduring beauty.
The differences between Hamid’s protagonists Saeed and Nadia are so stark as to make their blossoming love affair seem nearly implausible. Saeed is reserved and devout and still living with his parents, while Nadia is an unapologetic atheist who has her own apartment and wears a black robe only to help her fend off unwanted advances. They’re both comfortable in the world of social media and eagerly share psychedelic mushrooms or a joint in Nadia’s home, but despite their growing closeness, Saeed startles Nadia with his unwillingness to experience sex before marriage.
With a few well-placed narrative brush strokes, Hamid portrays how the violence of their unnamed country’s conflict moves, slowly but inexorably, from the periphery of their otherwise pleasant lives to the center. Beginning with a truck bomb that kills Nadia’s cousin and continuing through the militants’ stock exchange takeover, a bank panic and the shuttering of their respective businesses, it becomes clear that the only choice for the couple is between remaining to face the prospect of random violence and sudden death or flight.
Hamid’s inventive vehicle for their departure is a magic door, one that “could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country.” For the seemingly rootless Nadia, there’s hardly a backward glance, but Saeed’s separation from his family inflicts a permanent wound, painful proof, in one sense, of Hamid’s observation that “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
As Saeed and Nadia move through what soon is revealed as a worldwide network of doors, from the Greek island of Mykonos to London to a sprawling settlement of migrants in Marin County, California, Hamid expertly portrays both the desperation and determination of these diverse, widely separated refugee communities. The pair’s sojourn in England exposes them to nativist unrest, portrayed with a suggestiveness that enhances its dramatic tension. In the account of their nomadic life, Hamid effortlessly shifts from a close-up view of the building friction between Nadia and Saeed to a wide-angle portrait of the dwelling places – from sprawling camps to occupied mansions – where the refugees make their homes.
Hamid’s description of this “unprecedented flow of migrants that was hitting the rich countries, who were building walls and fences and strengthening their borders, but seemingly to unsatisfactory effect,” will resonate with readers in a country that’s still debating the strategic wisdom and moral legitimacy of border walls and travel bans. Whether impelled by war, famine or simply a desire for a better life, Hamid seems to be saying, mass migrations will continue to be a fact of life in our time, just as it’s been a fact of human history. No magic door is necessary to ensure that.
Hamid’s ingenious use of that metaphor inevitably will draw comparisons to Colson Whitehead’s reimagination of the Underground Railroad as an actual transportation system in his eponymous 2016 novel. In fact, it’s a relatively minor plot element, as he devotes little attention to describing the device or its operation, relying on it mainly to enhance the fable-like quality of his story. One exquisite exception is a tender depiction of two elderly men who pass back and forth through the door that separates Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro, becoming lovers in the process.
Exit West concludes with a fittingly elegiac, but unpredictable denouement to the Nadia-Saeed love story. What’s left unfinished – equally appropriately – is the story of a world “full of war and migrants and nativists,” one that’s “full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart.” That’s a story whose final chapter won’t be written for a long time, likely never.