Mohsin Hamid has always been a writer with his pulse on the zeitgeist. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (the novel with which he made his name) was a deeply provocative, disquieting book about the aftermath of 9/11. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia offered us a mordant satire on the dreams and rapaciousness of a globalised, capitalist society.
And here is his new novel, Exit West, which can lay claim to being one of the first post-Brexit, post-refugee-crisis fictions, preoccupied with the will to leave and the wish to remain; about being torn asunder; about the meaning of migration, home, and belonging.
Exit West opens in an unnamed West Asian city (you could insert any name you choose) which is bracing for war, “a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”. Saeed and Nadia meet in this city and become lovers. But war does come to the city, fracturing lives, altering irrevocably the fabric of life itself.
Hamid is particularly good at evoking the violence (he is almost reporter-like in his deliberately bald cataloguing of horrors) that war wreaks upon the city, at the manner in which it transfigures the way people live (and die), and the way in which they try to come to terms with it. “Funerals were smaller and more rushed affairs in those days, because of the fighting. Some families had no choice but to bury their dead in a courtyard or at the sheltered margin of a road, it being impossible to reach a proper graveyard, and so impromptu burial grounds grew up, one extinguished body attracting others, in much the same way that the arrival of one squatter in a disused patch of government land can give rise to an entire slum.”
And then, Narnia-like, doors begin to appear all over the city. These are special doors which are gateways to different lands across the world. This element of magical realism allows Hamid to bypass having to deal with the logistical part of migration. He is in any case less concerned with that aspect than the psychological uncertainty, anguish and alienation engendered by the migration from a war-torn city to one which is ostensibly safer but one in which the migrant is not welcome.
Saeed and Nadia escape, through one of the doors in their city, first to Mykonos in Greece and then to London, places where they become a part of vast migrant camps. “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move, much of the global south headed to the global north, but also southerners moving to other southern places and northerners moving to other northern places.”
It is here that their relationship begins to unravel, as frayed nerves, discontent with the surroundings, displacement and the overhanging shadow of violence and harm affecting both in different ways. Hamid’s portrayal of this gradual, painful unspooling of what had once been so vibrant and full of promise is masterful.
Saeed and Nadia leave London, using another door to end up in a small city called Marin near San Francisco. But the change of scene does not – as they had hoped – rekindle their relationship. They grow apart, their experiences of leaving their home city and trying to make a home elsewhere shaping them in ways that make it harder and harder for them to forge again the bond they had once shared. What had once been so precious begins to wither and die. “There was also closeness, for the end of a couple is like a death, and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us of the value of things…”
Read more: Mohsin Hamid | The self and its fictions
The Reluctant Fundamentalist was narrated in the first person; How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia was told through the trickier second person; in Exit West, Hamid uses an omniscient narrator, who is able to see – and tell – things about the main protagonists and the world around them, that the protagonists may not be aware of. The prose, rich with details, often freighted with irony, and unfolding in long sentences, has about it an incantatory quality.
Mohsin Hamid has again written a poignant, relevant parable of our times. This novel has come not a moment too soon.