With novels like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid has proved himself a writer able to speak directly of and to the moment. His latest work, Exit West, is no exception. In it he situates a love story amidst the refugee crisis, painting a nuanced portrait of contemporary migration, from the horrors of Western hysteria to what it really means to leave one life behind in the hope of building another.
It begins like any “boy meets girl” story – eyes are locked across a classroom, an invitation to get a drink after class is declined but not rebuffed, accepted a week later, and two young people begin to spend more and more time together. The relative gentleness of this courtship, however, is contrasted against a backdrop of increasing civil unrest. The unnamed Middle Eastern city in which Hamid’s two lovers, Saeed and Nadine, live is on the brink of disaster, “swollen with refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”, but, as Hamid expertly shows, the slide into conflict, violence and the frightening curtailment of civil liberties happens all too easily.
Honing in on the individual human costs of the escalating discord, the reader is brought face to face with the realities of war: “Neighbourhoods fell to the militants in startlingly quick succession, so that Saeed’s mother’s mental map of the place where she had spent her entire life now resembled an old quilt, with patches of government land and patches of militant land. The frayed seams between the patches were the most deadly spaces, and to be avoided at all costs. Her butcher and the man who dyed the fabrics from which she had once made her festive clothes disappeared into such gaps, their places of business shattered and covered in rubble and glass.”
Meanwhile, mysterious black doors begin to appear across the city, through which its inhabitants start to flee – one enters a closet or a doorway in familiar surroundings, and exists in calmer climes like the UK, US or Australia, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-style: “It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born.” Although it might seem at odds with the realism of the rest of the novel, this surrealism actually makes perfect sense, a stroke of genius in fact, a means by which Hamid can both illustrate and then advocate for an increasingly integrated world: “Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play.”
The poetry of Hamid’s prose prevents Exit West becoming too heavy a read. He doesn’t shy away from wrestling with some of the most uncomfortable realities of the Brexit/Trump age – Saeed and Nadine find themselves in a UK that’s “like a person with multiple personalities, some insisting on union and some disintegration” – but this fable-like novel has the soul of an accomplished short story and wears its message surprisingly and intoxicatingly lightly.
‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid is published by Hamish Hamilton, £14.99Reuse content