This is my review of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.
In the same vein as “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” yet quite different in some respects, this short novel has an unusual, often insightful and moving take on the fraught issue of migration. Saeed and Nadia, two young professionals in an unnamed muslim city, first notice each other at a time when religious militants are beginning to disrupt daily life. One of the first hints of menace comes in the comment that the view from the flat which Saeed shares with his parents would in times of conflict be “like staring down the barrel of a rifle”. Saeed cannot visit Nadia’s flat openly, so he comes at night when she can drop down to him a woman’s black robe to provide a suitable disguise.
When militants gain overall control of the city, with close relatives killed, work places closed down, food in short supply, electricity and water supplies disrupted and Saeed and fearful of touching each other in public, they have little option but to flee. On realising that Mohsin Hamid has resorted to magic realism by having his characters slip through black doors which mysteriously appear to allow people to escape to unknown destinations, irritation almost provoked me to abandon the novel. In fact, he handles this device surprisingly well: apart from adding to the sense of being at the mercy of fate, it arguably it is a method of focusing on the migrant experience of adapting to a series of unfamiliar new settings, and also makes the impact of each cultural change all the sharper.
Mohsin Hamid imagines a London which has almost broken down under the volume of migration, with many of the vacant homes of wealthy residents taken over by squatters. There is a kind of pragmatic tolerance in the eventual decision to build settlements for the newcomers in the Green Belt.
He writes quite subtly of the different ways in which migrants respond: Saeed clings to aspects of their old life, seeking solace in prayer and the company of those of the same nationality, whereas despite her continued wearing of the black robe which keeps the unwelcome attentions of men at bay, the non-praying Nadia finds it easier to put the past behind her. The claustrophobia of close proximity impels them to go foraging alone, despite the risk of being separated if their phone contact is broken. In the disrupton and risk of their old lives, they feel most disoriented when general system failure cuts them off from the internet and online social networks, sophisticated links in stark contrast to their poverty and lack of personal control over their fate. Although maintaing an enduring concern for each other, their relationship is strained to the limit and altered by the changes imposed upon them.
The author arouses a strong sympathy for the migrants, combined with a growing sense that the lives of those in the countries receiving them must be inevitably changed at the same time. He writes at one point of the elderly Californian who feels a stranger in the locality where she has lived all her life which seems to have been taken over by “people who looked more at home than she was, even the homeless ones who spoke no English, more at home maybe because they were younger, and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time”.
Perhaps because he felt it necessary to express ideas beyond the experiences of Saeed and Nadia, Hohsin Hamid keeps briefly introducing fresh characters, unconnected to the main storyline line, who pass through the black doors into new lives. This tends to create a disjointed, distracting effect, for me the main shortcoming in an otherwise excellent book which I read in a single day, trying not to pass too quickly over the many acute observations.