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”.