by Elizabeth Helen Spencer
Can a book be of its time while also possessing timeless characteristics? Mohsin Hamid’s slender new novel certainly manages to do both. It is an allegorical tale about refugees and migration, topical in its examination of why people leave their homeland and how they are dehumanized in the new places they end up. At the same time, Hamid’s decision not to ground his characters in a specific city, year, or war makes Exit West ripe for re-reading in the future. It wrestles with classic themes of great fiction: love, war, immigration, and internal conflict. Yes, there are markers of the period it was written in–email, cell phones, and so forth–but they exist as naturally as the peasants and train cars in Tolstoy’s novels. And like Tolstoy, though in fewer words, Hamid pulls off the difficult novelist trick of painting the sociopolitical landscape of his story without being didactic. In other words, as novelist Tayari Jones recently put it, he writes “about people and their problems” instead of “problems and their people.”
The first sentence, which says everything in only a few words, is illustrative of Hamid’s prose style throughout. “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.” As far as first sentences go, this one is a classic “boy meets girl” with a twist–a coming war–that puts us immediately in the action. It also establishes the two main characters, Saeed and Nadia, as “normal” people, relatable to Western readers who may not have many opportunities to think of people from war-torn countries as having been students, lovers, and other things that Americans can take for granted due to the lucky accident of their birthplace.
Hamid even addresses this seeming contradiction in the narration: “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at 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.”
I wish I could show you all the dog-eared pages in my copy of Exit West. There are so many illuminating and searing bits of wisdom like that one. On this front the novel reminded me of Lincoln in the Bardo, the George Saunders novel I reviewed last year. Also similar to Lincoln is the situation of characters who are preoccupied with ordinary details in the midst of an extraordinary time. Exit West’s first two chapters establish Nadia and Saeed as characters and narrate their burgeoning relationship. We learn that Nadia is “always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe” not because she is devoutly religious but because the costume protects her from the unwanted attention and advances of men. Saeed is not particularly religious either, though at first this becomes a humorous misunderstanding between them.
In his exploration of his characters’ interior lives, Hamid also comments on the pleasures and perils of modern life, as in this description of Saeed’s relationship with his phone: “He found the antenna too powerful, the magic it summoned too mesmerizing, as though he were eating a banquet of limitless food, stuffing himself, stuffing himself, until he felt dazed and sick.” At the same time, technology permits Saeed “to access Nadia’s separate existence, at first hesitantly, and then more frequently, at any time of day or night, allowed him to start to enter into her thoughts…he became present without presence, and she did much the same to him.” I can’t think of a more eloquent description of technology’s paradox: it isolates and creates intimacy at the same time.
Saeed and Nadia fall in love under “dramatic circumstances” and must quickly decide whether to leave or stay. Many of the novel’s descriptions evoke the present war and refugee crisis in Syria without directly naming it. For example, Nadia and Saeed are both “fortunate that their homes remained for a while in government-controlled neighborhoods, and so were spared much of the worst fighting.” Still, everyday life erodes; both characters lose their jobs as businesses shutter, and “conversations focused mainly on conspiracy theories, the status of the fighting, and how to get out of the country…the relative merits, or rather risks, or the various overland routes were guess at, and picked apart.” Then the rumors start, of “doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away.”
Hamid’s use of doors gives the novel the quality of magical realism. They are both literal portals from one place to another and symbols of the barriers and randomness that migrants and refugees are subject to. Eventually, Nadia and Saeed have the chance–for a hefty price–to emigrate through one of the doors. They leave everyone and everything they know and embark on an unknown journey with only each other to rely on. I won’t spoil the plot trajectory, butsuffice to say that Nadia and Saeed grow and change as characters, ending up in different physical and emotional places. Along the way, Hamid details their plight as refugees in a visceral way that makes the reader realize she could very well find herself in the midst of a similar plight.
In 2018, as an international debate over the fate of refugees and the world’s responsibility to them unfolds, Exit West reminds us 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.” Read this novel because it is a beautiful portrayal of two fraught and lovely human lives. But read it also to empathize with the experience of refugees and migrants, to remember that many groups throughout history have had to leave their homes under threat of war or persecution. Hamid doesn’t tell us what we should do about it, but he feeds our moral imagination, prompting us to at least think about what might be done.