Despite the grisly accounts of teenagers playing football with a severed head, sundered families and truncated, thinly-attended funerals designed for expediency, in his new novel, Mohsin Hamid can’t help but be a sap: and we say that in a good way. Exit West is an exploration of the mass migration that we all know is coming, that has already come; but here, the adventure of new lands edges over the adversity, and people everywhere – a little boy administering polio vaccine, an intimidated but determined protester in Vienna, even the government of England – ultimately find in themselves the humanity to accommodate their new neighbours.
Exit West centres around lovers Nadia and Saeed, who flee their homeland and pass through Mykonos; London; Marin, California in a literal, leaping migration. They meet in college and fall in love over coffee, burgers, pot and shrooms, in a city over-run by militants and drones, constrained by curfews and decorum. Hamid’s account of their courtship is vacant of warmth, the writing stilted and wincingly focussed on stating the obvious.
“Despite initial instances of awkwardness, or rather of disguised shyness,” writes Hamid, “they found it mostly easy to talk to one another, which always comes as something of a relief on a first proper date.” Yes, we are painfully aware. Even worse, a description of the Atacama Desert: “You can lie on your back and look up and see the Milky Way. All the stars like a splash of milk in the sky. And you see them slowly move. Because the Earth is moving.”
Third-grade geography aside, Hamid’s account of Nadia and Saeed’s city is disappointingly devoid of a sense of place. This is because of his refusal to name it, in sharp contrast to clear identifications of the islands and cities Nadia and Saeed land up in once they flee. It could be Aleppo or Kabul or most likely Lahore, Hamid’s own hometown: but in the absence of details, this reader found herself filling in the gaps with Hamid’s previous, finely-limned descriptions of his birth city, most recently in the essays of Discontent And Its Civilizations.
Despite the grisly accounts of teenagers playing football with a severed head, sundered families and truncated, thinly-attended funerals designed for expediency, in his new novel, Mohsin Hamid can’t help but be a sap: and we say that in a good way.
Nadia and Saeed’s means of transport are magical black doors that spring up all over the world, connecting far-flung places, a literary device that allows Hamid to gloss over the journey and focus instead on the consequences of travel, of what happens when you finally get to where you’re going.
Fortunately, as its protagonists venture through their first black door, the novel is transported as well, to a vastly better place. It picks up momentum and verve and depth, diving deep into Nadia and Saeed’s changing, complicated relationship but also yanking the reader into short, light-drenched accounts of migrants and “natives” all over the world; if you only read four pages this year, let them be Hamid’s story of two lovely old gents that meet across a lush courtyard in central Amsterdam and armed with hand-rolled cigarettes and a panama hat, and use a black door to journey back to an art studio in Rio de Janeiro. The story ends, as all the best ones do, with a make-out session on the balcony.
This idea of black doors being not just a means of fleeing but also of going back, the belief that circumstances, personal and global, no matter how apocalyptic they might seem, have a way of changing, recurring and often even righting themselves, lies at the heart of Exit West. Migration is not new but eternal and essential to human progress. Hamid shows us this by telling of “natives” in Marin that are no longer there; through the thoughts of a old lady who has lived in one home all her life, but who has “migrated through time;” through Nadia and Saeed, who cling to each other and leave each other and find new lovers and half a century later meet again in their now-healed hometown, where they drink coffee and talk about sex and maybe, just maybe, begin to plan a new, far-flung journey together.
May we all be as brave as them.
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