At another time, perhaps Americans would have more concern for the human tragedy of the ongoing migrant crisis, but it seems most would rather reduce it to a point of partisan conflict or simply ignore it all together these days, despite excellent journalism on the subject and urgent pleas from migrants themselves. But sometimes fiction can accomplish what journalism cannot, and Mohsin Hamid attempts that feat with Exit West, an excellent new novel that feels specifically designed to pierce the hearts of reluctant Westerners.
Exit West may be brief, but it packs quite a punch, distilling into one novel the entire experience of migration for two characters. While there’s just enough detail that the violence driving migration is recognizably of our times, mostly Hamid is interested in withholding detail in order to render migration in universal terms that transcend contemporary politics and posit migration both as an inevitable fact of life and in some cases, as an engine for positive change.
Exit West opens with narration informing readers that even in “a city teetering on the edge of the abyss”, people go on with quotidian tasks. For two young people, Nadia and Saeed, this means attending a night class in corporate branding. Saeed is a gentle soul, dreamy and committed to his parents, whom he lives with, while Nadia lives on her own and cherishes her hard-won independence. She doesn’t pray, rides a motorcycle, and wears a full body length black robe not out of piety, but to free her from male attention.
Despite the cloud of violence enveloping their city, in which “militants” are trying to oust “government” forces, Saeed and Nadia form a connection and soon are hesitantly dating. Their early days and first bashful steps towards romance are described beautifully and soon Nadia and Saeed are slowly drawn out of their former lives, both by each other and more ominously, by the encroaching chaos that threatens everything they’ve ever known. As leaving becomes more necessary, they begin to hear rumors of magic doors that can instantly transport people to far away lands. As militants (also using the doors) take the city and Nadia and Saeed lose everything, they make the difficult arrangements and together step through a door and into the unknown.
Through the doors they travel, finding unimaginable changes in first Mykonos, then London, and finally northern California. They find themselves instantly lumped with other migrants as a class, living in impoverished camps even while sometimes catching glimpses of wealth they had never dreamed of. But not everything is different and in London, the migrants find themselves the targets of nativist rancor; a mob mentality fueled by rhetoric not unlike that of the fundamentalist militants who drove them from their native home.
By using the device of magic doors, Hamid ignores the depressing logistics of actually crossing borders and focuses on the emotional experience of those who make it across borders and boundaries.The doors also highlight the ultimate impracticality of trying to lock down borders and more importantly, the cruel, arbitrary nature of who gets born where. Indeed, with no magic at all, a person could travel from Syria to a posh neighborhood in London in the space of a few hours and what would probably seem most magic to them is not the mode of travel, but that such beauty and wealth could exist so near to such suffering and want.
The result of some of Hamid’s choices—the slight magic of the doors, the lack of exact details, but especially the narration that veers shockingly from its usual somewhat airy remove to terse descriptions of terrible violence—is an almost fairy tale quality. This does nothing to diminish the seriousness of Nadia and Saeed’s situation, but reinforces the elemental transformations they undergo. From the moment they step from the life they’ve known through a door to parts unknown, they are like Alice through the looking glass, not from any other fantastic inventions on Hamid’s part, but from the authentically bewildering diversity of the world.
The true beauty of Exit West is the delicacy and humanity with which Hamid shows the self-discovery of Nadia and Saeed as they react to their new surroundings. Saeed grows more devout as his religion becomes his primary lifeline to his past and his beloved parents, while Nadia seeks new experiences that her former nation denied her. Their romantic relationship slowly fades and is replaced by a different, sibling-like bond; the deep knowledge that comes from watching a person evolve from their origins.
In Exit West, migration is a fundamental form of change. While he is not naïve about the dark side of migration—the omnipresent threat of violence, the pain of losing a homeland, the resentment towards newcomers—Hamid makes effort to show the beautiful new possibilities that migration can produce. When Nadia and Saeed finally settle down in an immigrant-built new city in Marin County, the melting pot of their new home is breeding new artistic and culinary forms, while the pool of willing labor builds homes and communities.
Hamid also briefly departs from Nadia and Saeed’s story to tell vignettes from around the world, including two lonely old men from different continents finding solace together, and a suicidal Englishman who departs for Africa and finds a new lease on life. Another vignette shows a woman who has lived her whole life in one house, only to see the neighborhood transform around her; the narrator concludes, “We are all migrants through time.” With this magnanimous point of view, Hamid encapsulates the generosity of his message, not casting blame on opponents of migration, but portraying it as an inevitable facet of nature and change—something that can be embraced or merely endured, but cannot be denied.
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