Exit West: A Review
Mohsin Hamid’s newest novel is the product of four years of work, but you wouldn’t know that from the startlingly topical story about a young couple fleeing west from their home in an unnamed, war-torn city. Read any news story on the real-life refugee crisis and you’ll find that the path to safety is riddled with exhausting and often dangerous barriers, ranging from bureaucracy to geography and everything in between. But what Hamid imagines is a world where migrants travel through magic doors, transporting them instantly to other countries... not that it makes the journey altogether much easier.
Exit West is only 238 pages long, but it is not to be confused for light reading. It begins with main characters Saeed and Nadia meeting in an evening business class, noting with self-awareness how “our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.” The two begin dating shortly thereafter, Saeed an amateur stargazer living with his parents, and Nadia motorcyclist living only with her record player. But as their city descends into chaos, a death in the family brings a realization that it is time for Saeed and Nadia to take a chance and leave home. The two pass through portals to Mykonos, London, and San Francisco, and the restlessness and tension is tangible as the couple struggles with tribalist and nativist factions that make peace and stability elusive creatures. In a particularly sobering passage, Hamid writes, “The fury of those nativists advocating wholesale slaughter was what struck Nadia the most, and it struck her because it seemed so familiar, so much like the fury of the militants in her own city.” From Nadia’s perspective, the reader experiences the hostility not only of the nativists and militants, but also of the refugees themselves, some of whom band together and lash out over the constant trials of being unsafe at home and unwanted abroad.
Interspersed with Saeed and Nadia’s movements are vignettes of other migrants, coming from countries across the world and all walks of life. One featured character is an older woman who has spent her entire life in the same house. At first this seems to break Hamid’s pattern, until she makes a striking observation (and my personal favorite line of the entire book): “[i]t seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” With this, Hamid expresses the human commonality of movement, that we are all subject to change and the unknown, and encourages readers to have empathy for fellow migrants in different circumstances.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Exit West is that, unlike books such as Tartt's The Goldfinch or Lahiri's The Lowland, it manages to deal with tragedy without being one. While there is some temptation to focus on the dystopian qualities of the book, Hamid’s intention is something rather different: “actually it’s about looking for signs of hope and optimism in the future.” At the end of the book, Saeed and Nadia return to their home city. It’s no longer the city they grew up in, but it’s also not the one they ran away from. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s an encouraging one; the world is a dangerous place, and there’s a lot wrong with it—some things we won’t ever be able to fix—but with some resilience and determination, there’s a hell of a lot we can set right as we migrate together through time.
The views reflected in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo: "Stars." Originally taken by Keith McDuffee for Flickr with a CC BY 2.0 license.