Timely yet timeless, allegorical yet realistic, Mohsin Hamid’s Man Booker-shortlisted Exit West is a stunning and heartbreaking novel that explores the extremes people will go to when faced with two equally life-changing experiences: war and love.
Exit West is about Saeed and Nadia, who meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding and embark on a relationship together. It is also about a city that slowly, then suddenly, succumbs to civil war. Last, but by no means least, it is about a series of mysterious doors that begin appearing everywhere, allowing people to cross from one country to another into another in a moment.
The book is told from a third person vantage point that is positively self-assured in its omniscience, sliding confidently and casually from place to place, from future to past, from macro to micro. The reader is never fully allowed to separate Nadia and Saeed’s story from the larger narrative of the war. Within a single sentence, Hamid masterfully juxtaposes some minute development in their relationship with the ever-present threat of violence that creeps ever closer to them and all those who continue to pursue a normal life. For example, one day, early in the first chapter,
Saeed spoke to Nadia for the first time. Their city had yet to experience any major fighting, just some shootings and the odd car bombing, felt in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration like those emitted by large loudspeakers at music concerts, and Saeed and Nadia had packed up their books and were leaving class.
This is just one of countless passages that begs to be lingered over and reread. Hamid presents the war as “just” background noise, nothing more than the “odd car bombing” comparable to a carefree night out, or that unidentifiable moment of uncertainty you feel when you hear about, and disregard, that piece of bad news in favour of carrying on with your day. Violence is rendered mundane, almost benign, in Exit West; and, as a result, it is horrifying. The biggest threat is the one you choose to ignore.
Hamid’s Western readers will be familiar with choosing to ignore war and the plight of others: every day we see the ongoing refugee crises and threats of war in our newsfeeds, but unless these events directly impact us or our loved ones, it is only too easy to hold them at a distance. Why worry about something so many miles away, far beyond our national borders?
Well, what if those borders ceased to matter?
With the sudden appearance of doors in the most unexpected of places – a bedroom closet, a back alley, a dental practice – Hamid reinvents migration. No longer do refugees have to make perilous and potentially fatal crossings across land and sea; now they just have to wait for the rumour of a new portal, a door that could take them anywhere in the world, and hope that they’ll be welcomed on the other side. No longer do refugee camps grow alongside closed borders; now they appear in the centre of cities, in Vienna or London, where migrants are able to squat and build communities in the empty homes of the super-rich. No longer can the citizens of rich countries ignore the plight of others; now they live on their doorstep, causing fear and ‘nativist’ prejudice when all they want is a safe home:
After the riots the told on the television was of a major operation, one city at a time, starting in London, to reclaim Britain for Britain […] Saeed and Nadia heard it said that nativist extremists were forming their own legions, with a wink and a nod from the authorities, and the social media chatter was of a coming night of shattered glass, but all this would probably take time to organize, and in that time Saeed and Nadia had to make a decision: whether to stay or to go.
Again, I have to say that I am awed by Hamid’s ability to weave so much depth into his writing, the nods to real-life violent nationalism both past (“night of shattered glass”) and present (“reclaim Britain for Britain”). Exit West is so timely, and yet so prescient: it nods to Brexit, openly mocks Trump (after all, what use is a wall in the face of a door?), acknowledges the migrant crises currently occurring all over the world, and even predicts the scandal of London’s empty homes that has fully arisen in the wake of the Grenfell disaster.
I have so much more to say about this book, but I would much rather you read Exit West than waste your time on this review. It is a novel that begs to be read, to tell us through fiction the things that are happening in reality; a book that is also an open door, closing the distance between ourselves and the lives of those we must not, but so often do, choose to ignore.