Rebecca Swirsky: Writer

London-based short story writer and critic

Property by Lionel Shriver

Published in The Economist 23rd April 2018

Lionel Shriver’s first collection of short stories explore the nature of generosity, the cost of money and the meaning of worth.

LIONEL SHRIVER’s literary currency is hard, topical fiction. Her 12 novels range—controversially—from school shootings and the Northern Irish Troubles to immigration, demography, terrorism, the American healthcare system, obesity and, most recently, finance. (She is also a former contributor to The Economist.) Thematically resonating with her novel “The Mandibles” (2016), “Property” is the author’s first short story collection. Ten stories flanked by two novellas posit that possessions may in turn possess their owners, while exploring definitions of generosity, the emotional cost of money and the subjectivity of worth.

Drawing on Ms Shriver’s personal interests, including her long-time love for tennis and her 12 years of experience as a journalist in Belfast, “Property” opens and closes with novellas. Each, in their way, negotiate threesomes of sorts. In “The Standing Chandelier”, a tennis-playing friendship in college-town Virginia disintegrates after one of the players becomes engaged and receives a unique wedding gift. In “The Subletter”, an American columnist and her unwanted flatmate, “conflict junkies” both, squabble over Northern Ireland—the third part of the threesome, a contested territory to which neither may lay claim. The shorter stories, set largely in America and Britain, range from the bordered confines of a London garden to the cloying luxury of an overseas paradisiacal resort, from the confiscation of a tube of ChapStick at an American airport to a haunted semi-detached house in London.

Ms Shriver has stated that her writing, like that of her literary heroine Edith Wharton, aims to bridge “the literary and the popular”. Appearing halfway through the collection, “Kilifi Creek”, which won a BBC National Short Story Award in 2014, achieves those aims amply, presenting a springily taut, swooping story of a young girl’s near-death experience on a gap-year in Kenya. “Vermin”, meanwhile, expertly explores the lines between hosting and being invaded, between ownership and being ousted. When a New York, newly-in-love couple manage to buy their rental property, the racoons that came with it swiftly turn from being endearing to being an “infestation”, as the couple experience the diminishing, rather than empowering, effects of responsibility. Gradually, the property is sanitised, and with that its unique freewheeling charm, like the raffish heart of their marriage, is stripped away. Here, the questions raised by E.M. Forster’s “My Wood”—used as Ms Shriver’s prologue—are acutely pertinent. ‘If you own things, what’s their effect on you? What’s the effect of me on my wood?’

Complex and clever, “Kilifi Creek” and “Vermin” testify to the author’s powers. Other inclusions in “Property” are puzzling; “The Self-Seeding Sycamore”, “The Royal Male” and “Negative Equity”, despite their sometimes eclectic lexicon, are neatly droll, erring-on-twee stories depriving the reader of breadth of vista or, indeed, Ms Shriver’s reassuring bite. In “Paradise to Perdition”, the heavy-handed presence of the narrator errs on pastiche, disrupting a story set in a resort in the Indian Ocean. In a story collection there is little room for error, and their presence mars this exploration of an otherwise fascinating, endlessly contemporary subject.


Apr 27th 2018


Ben Okri’s The Magic Lamp first published in New Statesman March 2018

The Magic Lamp is a collection of morally ambiguous tales for our trying times

Pairing 25 original paintings with 25 original stories, the collaboration with his partner, the painter Rosemary Clunie, took five years to write and 10 years to paint.

Ben Okri has been lauded (and sometimes derided) for his oeuvre of dream-logic fabulism. Translated into 27 languages, his poetry, novels, short fiction and essays mesh Western European and African influences, always rooted in a belief in the spiritual truth of our subjectivity – that there are as many realities as people to experience them.

Okri’s 1991 novel The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize, foregrounded the story of spirit child Azaro (short for Lazarus) in an unknown city in Africa. More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in Okri’s work following his poem on Grenfell Tower, a stark cri de coeur for the tragedy, including lines such as, “You saw it in the tears of those who survived./You saw it through the rage of those who survived.” (The poem inspired a Shoreditch street mural by graffiti artist Ben Eine and will be republished in Alt-Write, a crowdfunded collection also including Carol Ann Duffy, among others, which aims to “debunk xenophobic myths and… help [readers] discover the natural human quality of empathy”.) An excerpt from a longer poem was published in this magazine in December, tackling Brexit and a world in which it is “Easier to fall apart/Than to stay together.”

Personal experience taught Okri to feel division acutely. Born in 1959 in Minna, northern Nigeria, he travelled to England aged 18 months, so that his father, Silver, could study law. At seven years old, Okri returned to Nigeria – as civil war broke out. Okri’s mother Grace was half Igbo, while his father was Urhobo. Much of the war was spent hiding her. Okri’s memories include the violence of “people shot, kids lying dead in the river, relations… killed”.

A storyteller who builds on Romantic and Renaissance traditions, Okri presents himself – the artist – as a troubled soothsayer, drawing from a lineage that included his father’s library of Aesop’s Fables, Arabian Nights, Dickens, Homer, Tolstoy, Maupassant, the Greek philosophers and African mythology – but also his beloved mother’s multitude of indirect, ambiguous tales, some of which would take Okri 20 years to understand. Speaking at the Word Factory Citizen Festival in London last year, Okri recalled her tale of the frog in the frying pan, which, as a child, fascinated and “freaked him out” equally. As the water beneath the frog heats, it is imperceptibly boiled to death. For Okri, the tale is analogous to how a nation may sleepwalk itself towards catastrophe, or one day discover itself in the middle of civil war (the sleepwalking metaphor is also of interest to the author, having run through 20th-century literature via Kafka and Camus).

Okri has previously published a collection of linked essays entitled A Time for New Dreams; his latest work The Magic Lamp – a collaboration with his partner, the painter Rosemary Clunie – is subtitled “Dreams of Our Age”. Pairing 25 original paintings with 25 original stories, the book took five years to write and 10 years to paint. Dreams appear in Okri’s introduction, which notes, in  typically enigmatic style: “Time is a riddle which the writer and artist interpret in their dreams. And their dreams are coded versions of all our dreams, given the tinge and temper of our mood and spirit.”

Clunie’s use of colour is billowing, rich and dreamlike – complementary to the rhythm of the prose – although, as Okri clarifies, the artworks came first. Snatches of white page, which gleam underneath loosely inscribed birds, buildings and trees bearing stars, resonate with the quality of space in Okri’s compact tales. There are leitmotifs of not noticing value, not acknowledging worth, not seeing clearly (“It is as if everything is here, if we know how to see”) woven through pristine paragraphs. Okri’s writing has a light-as-air elegance, yet its seriousness keeps the stories gravity-bound:

The house that our forefathers and foremothers built on the hill was built with stones from the river… Then we forgot the house that the sun had been building, forgot it in the times that came… Only now when we had long lost it, long forgotten that the river rose from the rising sun, do we see the picture that time has made.

Tales such as this one, titled “City of Enigmas”, are diffuse, morally ambiguous. Might the “house” be welfare? Democracy? The NHS?

Okri’s quirks and quiddities aren’t to everyone’s taste – they never have been. But as economic disparity and climate change escalate, perhaps portention, rather than cynical pretension, is what’s required. Authors are fighting from the page to awaken us. Winter, the recent novel by Ali Smith, was wrought with similar urgency, paralleling Greenham Common with Grenfell Tower (Smith has called Okri a literary and social visionary).

Yet the question of how to recognise the heat in the pan remains challenging. As Okri explained, “If the frog is being boiled slow enough, it’s hard to say, ‘hey, we’re being boiled to death’, because the frog will say, ‘what’s the matter, it’s only summer’ or ‘it’s only room temperature’.”

Rebecca Swirsky’s fiction was included in “Best British Short Stories 2015”

The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age
Ben Okri and Rosemary Clunie
Apollo, 128pp, £16.99


The varied and decorated career of author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Published in New Statesman 3 February 2018

The 17 stories in At The End of the Century, drawn from past collections, chronicle Jhabvala’s concern with cultural encounters, dislocation and the immigrant experience.

Few fiction writers can boast a Booker prize, two Oscars, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a CBE. Yet the German-Jewish author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala achieved just that, with her novel Heat and Dust (1975) and Merchant-Ivory adaptations of EM Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992) – despite casually listing writing film scripts as a “recreation” in Who’s Who.

Raised in Nazi Germany, Jhabvala spent her adolescence in London, her middle years in Delhi (bringing up three daughters with her architect husband, Cyrus Jhabvala) and her final decades in New York. By the end of her life, aged 85 in 2013, she had completed 12 novels, eight collections of short stories and 23 screenplays with Merchant Ivory Productions. A natty ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for social nuance earned her comparisons with Austen, Forster and Chekhov. She depicted the West’s infatuation with India (mainly by pairing affluent older women with charismatic gurus) as well as a middle- and lower-middle-class India seen by few foreigners. Later stories would explore the experiences of immigrant Europeans in New York; for Jhabvala, Europe would forever smell “of blood”.

Born into a comfortable middle-class family in Cologne in 1927, Jhabvala’s apartment overlooked the city’s main avenue and her grandfather was cantor to the biggest synagogue. She fled Germany with her brother and parents in 1939. A few years after the war her father committed suicide, having learned of his entire family’s death (more than 40 in number) in concentration camps. In London in 1949, she met her lifelong love, Cyrus Jhabvala (“Jhab”), a Parsee architect from New Delhi. They married and moved to India in 1951. Jhabvala was smitten by her new country, claiming: “It was like childhood, what childhood should be.”

The 17 stories in At The End of the Century, drawn from past collections, chronicle Jhabvala’s concern with cultural encounters, dislocation and the immigrant experience. Misogyny – and sensuality – bubble up through impeccably constructed prose. In “The Widow”, Durga fails to seduce a teenager – whom she describes as “a young animal full of sap and sperm” – renting one of her rooms with his family. Shamed into spirituality, urged to pray to Krishna “as a son and as a lover”, Durga duly renounces her widow’s fortune and her relatives move in, happily reaping the benefits.

In “An Experience of India”, the narrator, the wife of an unnamed journalist, is questioned by her Indian lovers about how many men she has slept with and if she is ashamed. Whether an adored spiritual guru or somebody else’s husband, at the moment of climax the men are united in shouting “Bitch!” In “Desecration”, the womanising Hindu superintendent of police, Bakhtawar Singh, has an affair with Sofia, a married Muslim woman initially described as “the sort of person who exudes happiness”. In a cheap hotel room, Sofia is told to chant Muslim prayers in time with an unseen guest while being taken from behind. At the affair’s end, Sofia commits suicide and Singh smoothly transfers to a new district.

Jhabvala’s relationship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory began in 1961 when they suggested she write a screenplay of her 1960 novel The Householder (which she did, in eight days). They continued to work together and in 1976, no longer charmed by her host country but overwhelmed by it, Jhabvala left Delhi to lease a studio above their New York apartment. Their alliance lasted more than 40 years, with Merchant commenting on their confluence of identities: “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory… I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American.”

Of screenwriting and fiction, Jhabvala always held the latter in higher regard. On the page, she could forensically explore the hair’s breadth between pleasure and pain, loss and hope. This collection does not offer happy tales – rather, stories in which the acquisition or abandonment of happiness dominate. Characters falsely believe themselves to be happy, are miserable at the cost of being happy, or are unable to account for the happiness of others.

Jhabvala never wrote directly about her past (although she once referred to it in a speech called “Disinheritance”, while accepting a 1979 Neil Gunn Fellowship for literature). Instead, her personal history is told obliquely through the violence, shattered dreams and fatalism within her fiction. The writer JM Coetzee’s words resonate: “All autobiography is storytelling; all writing is autobiography.”

At the End of the Century
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Little, Brown, 448pp, £20

Basquiat: Boom for Real

Barbican, London

This preview was first published in World of Interiors’ September IssueIMG_9542 IMG_9516


“The only thing that has ever interested me,” Jean-Michel Basquiat said to lover Suzanne Mallouk, “is a blank page.” Add letters, refrigerators, televisions, clothes, vases, spare pieces of wood, postcards, doors, windows, exterior and interior walls, and Basquiat was painting the urban canvas of New York city itself. A brilliant self-taught colourist and draughtsman, plurilingual Basquiat was the Brooklyn-born son of middle-class Haitian and Puerto Rican parents. As a child, Basquiat told his father, “Papa, I will be very famous one day”; as an adult, he altered art history, collaging eclectic influences– which included Beat poetry, Bebop jazz, Dadaist mythology, history, Afrocentricism, philosophy, hip hop, anatomy, cartoons, television and everyday conversation – like multiple open browsers on the internet. That Basquiat achieved titan status with a career that barely spanned the years 1978 and 1988 – when his life was cut short by heroin – is astonishing.

The first show in 20 years and on this scale, Boom for Real presents Basquiat as the ultimate multi-hyphenate meshing ambition with intellectual acuity. Words, he said he used, ‘like brushstrokes’; they formed complex vessels of meaning and startling pictorial shapes on his canvases. The exhibition will include a partial reconstruction of Basquiat’s first body of work created for the landmark group show New York/New Wave at P.S.1 in 1981, an exploration of Basquiat’s acerbic statements through his graffiti moniker SAMO (including a precociously witty story he penned for his school newspaper, from where the acronym ‘same old shit’ originated), and a section on the artist’s relationship with Warhol.

While associated most closely with 1980s Neo-expressionism, Basquiat was influenced by artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Picasso, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly. Untitled, 1980, made with spray paint and oil stick, presents a large canary-yellow work of enamelled metal made for the P.S. 1 show. In the top left-hand corner is spray-painted the words ‘New York New Wave’. Further down, the letter ‘A’ repeatedly descends from a plane to a car. Typical of Basquiat, the work offers simultaneous meanings, visually alluding to the city’s fractured, percussive rhythm, Twombly’s interest in ancient Greek graffiti – specifically shown in his painting Apollo and the Artist (1975) – and the A-bomb of Hiroshima the concept of which had very much impacted Basquiat.

Three years before he died, Basquiat told a Channel 4 interviewer that, ‘my mind affects my work more now than it used to, I used to work more heart to hand.’ It is poignant – and pointless – to reflect on what further changes would have taken place in his practice had he not passed away so young, yet Basquiat’s critiques on racism, black masculinity and police brutality have become more resonant, not less so. Beyond splashing paint in Armani suits, being Warhol’s confidante and Madonna’s beau, Basquiat made art that impacts immediately and lingers permanently. Boom for Real will remind us of the talent behind the supernova status that routinely fetches millions at the auction house.







The City Always Wins: a poetic, intimate debut set in Cairo during the Arab Spring

This review was first published in New Statesman

Literature can have the emotional edge, telling the truth in a way pure reporting cannot. Despite Egypt’s revolution having been well televised, Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel offers us a psychologically acute perspective on the uprising as it unfolded, positioning the reader alongside political dissidents – kids, barely – who, for a short while, made the impossible seem possible.

The author and political commentator (and Hamilton’s mother) Ahdaf Soueif wrote a diary of the revolt’s first 18 days entitled Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Hamilton’s novel, written in a poetic, stream-of-consciousness style, divided by sub-headings like news bulletins, also reads with a diary’s intimacy.

Beginning on 9 October 2011, the novel is divided into three parts: “Tomorrow”, “Today” and “Yesterday”. Events are told through the actions of 20-something Khalil and Mariam, who meet while ducking into a stairwell, checking each other’s bodies for Tahrir Square bullets. American-born Khalil, a former law student, translator, journalist, fixer, copy editor, graphic novelist, English teacher, NGO worker and volunteer, believes “Cairo is jazz: all contrapuntal influences jostling for attention, occasionally brilliant solos standing high above the steady rhythm of the street.” Mariam, an activist with the bravado required to confront officers used to inspiring fear, is the chain-smoking daughter of two doctors who used to run the best cancer unit in the country.

Khalil and Mariam, alongside Rania, Rosa, Malik and Hafez, form part of Chaos Cairo, a collective of podcasters, video-makers and photographers. They are joined by a host of other volunteers. The Chaos office, a crumbling apartment paid for by crowdfunding, is a hub where, initially, information is relayed to domestic and foreign media with lightning speed, offering an intoxicating sense of empowerment.

A hacktivist-savvy generation, the young are taking back the streets with bloodied bodies and busy laptops alike. The whole world – including Khalil’s ex-girlfriend in America – is watching: “They can’t keep up with us, an army of Samsungs, Twitters, HTCs, emails, Facebook events, private groups, iPhones, phone calls, text messages all adjusting one another’s movements millions of times each second.”

The question of how to bear witness belongs to all massacres, and cataloguing injustice is a central theme of the book, weaving from the streets of Tahrir to Gaza to Michael Brown’s prone body in Ferguson, Missouri. Ultimately, the need to wage a media war leaches poison into Khalil and Mariam’s psychic bloodstream, as potent as any gas. While the lines of communication to Athens and America dry up as the world’s attention shifts, the tremors, lack of sleep, and teeth grinding from visiting field clinics, pharmacies, doctors, donors and morgues remain. For Mariam, the odour of the morgue drips off her hair like “cigarette smoke in the shower”.

Khalil and Mariam’s belief that they “could have done more” before the Muslim Brotherhood opened their negotiations with the army is devastating. Their thoughts and observations come in an onslaught, and line by line Hamilton has the power of a crack poet. His prose is sometimes a little too burdened by poetry, too didactic or fractured in tone, but the anger and pain throbbing from these pages is palpable.

The Brotherhood having been ousted, a fever for Abdel el-Sisi, then minister of defence, as a potential presidential candidate grips Cairo’s streets. Torture and death seem close, while coffee and cigarettes and courage last only so long. Khalil and Mariam’s voices blur into one another, their tone taking the form of a lament. Khalil believes that: “It was lost from the start, lost from the moment we didn’t take Maspero, lost with the Molotov held back from the second army truck, lost when the square emptied after Mubarak fell.” Reading George Orwell and Eric Hobsbawm, he wonders: “Are we all doomed to the certainties of the historical materialist? Or is that a deflection of responsibility?”

Egypt’s future currently looks bleak. President el-Sisi’s human rights record is proving worse than that of Mubarak. Egypt has seen 19 new prisons since the 2011 revolution, 16 since el-Sisi took office, with Egypt’s activists dubbed “generation jail”.

Hamilton’s connection with the Egyptian prison system is personal. Activism is in his blood; he comes from a family of dissidents. The book is dedicated to his incarcerated cousin Alaa Abd El Fattah – a blogger and lauded activist, who is mentioned by characters throughout the book.

Khalil reads the spray-painted words on a Cairo wall: “If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.” This graffiti is an imaginative act, showing defiance of spirit, much like the book as a whole. Most essentially, this novel bears witness, recording injustice and aiming, as all good literature attempts, to tell the truth.

“The Common People” by Rebecca Swirsky appeared in the collection “Best British Short Stories 2015” (Salt)

The City Always Wins
Omar Robert Hamilton
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99

Lee Lozano Hauser & Wirth, London

This review was first published in Frieze

The diminutive scale of the 27 paintings in ‘Lee Lozano c. 1962’ at Hauser & Wirth London may echo that of Indian miniatures, yet jewel-toned Radhas and Krishnas these are not. Lozano’s earthen palette presents phalli, garish mouths, rotting teeth, bulbous breasts and candle-wax faces. Their depiction is cartoonish, muscular, barely contained.

One jutting phallus extends beyond the canvas, nosing to the furthest tip of its rudimentary, homemade frame (all works Untitled, c.1962). Body parts are prone to slippage; breasts stand in for bulging eyes, a phallus for a nose. Eyes are mostly missing, blank, black, covered up or sombre smudges without definition. Elsewhere, Lozano’s thickly applied oil paint presents aeroplanes flying into or swallowed by orifices, traffic lights simultaneously flashing Stop and Go, and cardboard boxes being ruptured by their contents. A preoccupation with the permeability of bodies produces a kinetic, darkly sexy atmosphere of danger.

Lee Lozano, No title, ca. 1962, oil on wood, 8 x 7 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser & Wirth, Zürich, London and Los Angeles

Lee Lozano, Untitled, c.1962, oil on wood, 8 x 7 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, London and Los Angeles


Representing Lozano’s first major body of work, yet only now debuting as a group, these paintings may surprise. No official exhibition history exists for the series, although some works may have been included in a show called ‘Contemporary Erotica’ held at the Van Bovenkamp Gallery in New York in 1964.

By the following year, Lozano had changed tack, beginning her series of huge ‘Tool Paintings’ (1963–64), which were exhibited in 1964 at Manhattan’s Green Gallery alongside work by artists including Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Today a cult figure, Lozano is lauded for her later, immaculately minimalist ‘Wave Series’ (1967–70) and, most of all, for her conceptual ‘life-related actions’. (According to critic Roberta Smith in a 1999 New York Times article, the artist disliked the term ‘performance’.) These latter works included Decide to Boycott Women – in which she ignored women, from 1971 until her death in 1999, as a way to expose gender relations – as well as Dropout Piece (begun c.1970), which initiated Lozano’s permanent exit from the art world.

Lozano had a relationship with feminism that was, like much else in her life, complicated: she once told Rolf Ricke, her Cologne gallerist, that she believed creative energy was male energy. Phallic forms certainly visually dominate the paintings here, yet their force is often undercut by the presence of an aperture, orifice or cavity. A mid-19th-century Bowie hunting knife surging up from inside a pizza box, rupturing the flimsy material from within, is balanced by the force of a black space between the top and bottom of the box. Later, a pillar-box-red penis wilts between two clamp-like shapes, its flaccid form defenceless against their anthropomorphic gurning.

Lee Lozano, No title, ca. 1962, oil on board, 7 x 8 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser and Wirth, Zurich, London and Los Angeles

Lee Lozano, Untitled, c.1962, oil on board, 7 x 8 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser and Wirth, Zurich, London and Los Angeles


Hypersensitive to shapes, Lozano wrote in a 1968 notebook: ‘It’s not just surface roundness that turns me on, it’s the feeling of density, mass, weight.’ In ‘c.1962’, this spatial awareness can nonetheless contribute to an odd rhythmic grace. In another work, two grinning, eyeless, waxen heads enact a dance against a lapis sky. A cucumber proboscis-phallus from one head penetrates the mouth of its partner who arches pliantly towards it. Such patterns of complex gestures, dense space and sexually charged body parts are repeated throughout the series.

Included in the show is a 1963 image of Lozano shot by photographer and filmmaker Hollis Frampton, which shows the artist leaning on her desk in her New York studio. Her lips seem resigned, yet her stare is defiant. In this moment, she is a woman – an artist – in control.

That these early paintings should be viewed as resolved pieces in their own right, rather than stepping-stones to later minimalist or conceptual works, is clear. Dorothy Spears, in a 2011 New York Times article, noted that Dorothy Lichtenstein recognized Lozano’s psychosexual, political potency, commenting, ‘Lee was punk before punk.’ With this show, the timeline has changed. Lozano was ahead of herself – or we have caught up.

Main image: Lee Lozano, Untitled, c.1962, oil on canvas on wood, 6 x 16 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser and Wirth, Zurich, London and Los Angeles

Mohsin Hamid reviewed: why the word “Muslim” is persistently omitted from Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is preoccupied with time and an anxiety about the future.

Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel opens as it means to go on. The twentysomething Saeed invites Nadia, a fellow student at his evening class (in “corporate identity and product branding”), for coffee. Discovering that she doesn’t pray, he lowers his voice to question why she wears a flowing black robe. Nadia’s reply is simple. “So men don’t fuck with me.” Her response sets the tone for their ensuing relationship and presents in micro Exit West’s premise: that people are hybrid beings with contradictory identities subject to flux. Along with globalisation’s brutal consequences and the corresponding hyperbolic nationalism, this is prime territory for the celebrated transnational author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Giving neither year nor country, Exit West opens on the cusp of two changes: the pair’s burgeoning relationship and the onset of a bloody, internecine war. The timorous Saeed, with a good education and a job at an advertising agency, lives amicably with his parents; Nadia’s family severed all ties when she took independent lodgings and employment at an insurance company. But their happiness – aided by joints and psychedelic mushrooms – is short-lived.

Militants begin taking over sections of the city; curfews and food rationing follow. Nadia buries money and gold in her potted lemon tree. The civil disintegration is terrifyingly swift. A neighbour’s blood seeps through Saeed’s ceiling, his throat slit because he had the wrong surname. Elsewhere, teenagers play football with a human head.

With visas impossible for the non-rich, rumours abound of extraordinary escape routes. Undetected by circling surveillance drones, ordinary doors are metamorphosing into “special doors”, offering immediate exit to other countries. Disbelieving yet desperate, Nadia and Saeed pay money to a door agent, taking their chances on a dentist’s door that previously led to a supply cabinet. They walk through, Nadia experiencing a “kind of extinguishing” and a “gasping struggle” to arrive in Greece on Mykonos. Soon, the island is swelling with migrants and the doors’ presence becomes official, springing open (and shutting) from Sydney to Tokyo, San Diego to Dubai. Using these portals, the couple undertake a perilous journey between Mykonos, London and Marin, a new city near San Francisco.

As the planet experiences a seismic shift, huge numbers flee cracking plains, tidal surges, bulging cities and war zones. The native backlash is dire. In London, a “Britain for Britain” campaign barely pulls back from a massacre of migrants. Against this fraught geopolitical backdrop, the co-ordinates of Nadia and Saeed’s relationship shift as they do. Living in the diaspora affects – and suits – them differently.

For Nadia, the flipside of globalisation is self-reinvention, including attraction to women. Saeed, nostalgic and praying three times a day, is increasingly drawn to people from his country of birth: “It seemed to Nadia that the further they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.” Despite this, even as their ardour cools, they honour a loyalty to each other.

At the novel’s kernel lies a preoccupation with time and an anxiety about the future, perhaps best illustrated when technology is aligned with naturalism. A flock of helicopters “filled the sky like birds startled from a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree”. When a drone crashes, its immobile, “iridescent body the size of a hummingbird”, Nadia and Saeed offer it that most human of farewells: a burial.

Hamid’s prose has the ability to glide deftly, meshing erudition with empathy. Yet as the novel progresses, sentences run to a page long and a past tense compounds the omniscient narrator’s ruminative, sermon-like cadence. The author’s last book, Discontent and Its Civilisations, was a work of non-fiction, collecting his foreign correspondent despatches on life, art and politics from London, Lahore and New York. Exit West reads very much as a natural extension of that book, yet fiction invariably suffers by becoming a siphon to polemic.

In a novel rife with ideas, the unsaid rings loudly: the word “Muslim” is persistently omitted from Exit West’s pages. Such absences require acts of co-creation between author and reader. And the presence of instant doorways reminds us, urgently, that the only thing that divides us is opportunity, not geography. To borrow a phrase from one of Hamid’s essays, “each individual human being is, after all, a minority of one”.