Young couple, fleeing civil unrest, find magic portals to West and lessons in humanity
Halfway through Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, “Exit West,’’ a depressed, suicidal London accountant puts aside a hockey stick he’d gotten out to defend himself against any refugees who might emerge through a portal in his home and instead enters the doorway himself to “see what was on the other side.” He ends up in Namibia, where he finally “felt something for a change.”
“Exit West’’ is a book about displacement as well as the universality of migration. It follows Nadia and Saeed, young lovers fleeing a nation torn apart by civil unrest. They are part of a global crisis caused by a mass migration of people described as “falling within a band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea,” all seeking to escape upheaval and persecution.
Their means of escape is a series of portals that mysteriously appear and offer passage to the West and, potentially, safe haven. Some are threatened in their places of arrival; others receive solace from the pale hued. As they pass through Mykonos, London, and Sausalito, restless and brittle Nadia wears the hijab and abaya hoping that men will leave her alone, and the tender, remorseful Saeed prays out of love, allegiance, and comfort as it serves as a tie to the past.
In a book peopled by the troubled yet compassionate, they are entirely ordinary, and we can imagine their union and disintegration echoed among the scattered masses. Others, however, stand out in their specificity: the elderly men, from Amsterdam and Brazil, who find each other through accidental trespass; the maid in Marrakesh who remains where she is known and tolerated. It is they who cast the notion of resisting migration into absurd relief.
Hamid is known for his experimentation of form; essays within the text (“Moth Smoke’’), dramatic monologue (“The Reluctant Fundamentalist’’), a novel told entirely in the second person (“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’’). In “Exit West’’ he leaves the pyrotechnics behind to great effect. The prose moves with swift transitions, mirroring the stealth of the time-traveling refugees, and details are offset by a wonderful dark humor. Long sentences curl around entire histories, but quietly, as though witness is sufficient in a novel that covers the repetitive facts of human struggle, and the ineffable beauty of human resilience. The familiar shape of oppression — rationing, curfews, human heads turned soccer balls — are given the same glancing attention as three people trapped in a house after a burial, whose distinct memories ensure that they “splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.”
Time itself is navigated lightly. Refugees, fighters, and desperadoes move through doors that represent flight and arrival. A singular nod to the difficulties faced by refugees is reflected in a description of the first man who appears on the other side of a portal “pulling himself up against gravity, or against the rush of a monstrous tide.” Nadia, observing a door for the first time, notes that, “it did not reveal what was on the other side, and also did not reflect what was on this side, and so felt equally like a beginning and an end.”
The unexplained appearance of refugees and the recreation of “normal life” in unoccupied city spaces calls to mind Polish writer, Magdalena Tulli’s novel, “Flaw’’ (2007), in which a streetcar deposits the unwelcome who occupy the city square. The thing about these entrances and exits is that they are ubiquitous, giving rise to an odd effect. We feel concern for Hamid’s reluctant travelers, yet no predicament feels insurmountable. And there is undeniable euphoria in imagining ever-porous borders.
In an era when powerful ruling groups — often in the minority — are gripped by a sense of religious and ethnic nativism, Mohsin offers these two, the millions they represent, and us, comfort: that plausible, desirable futures can be imagined, that new tribes may be formed, and that life will go on. Such an outcome is easier to imagine in fiction than to create in reality, but if we are looking for the story of our time, one that can project a future that is both more bleak and more hopeful than that which we can yet envision, this novel is faultless.
By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead, 231 pp., $26
Ru Freeman is the author of the novels “A Disobedient Girl’’ and “On Sal Mal Lane,’’ and the editor of “Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine.’’