EXIT WEST

Mohsin Hamid Hamish Hamil­ton; $32.99

The Monthly (Australia) - - NOTED - HE­LEN EL­LIOTT

In an un­named city two young peo­ple meet and fall in love. Their sit­u­a­tion has an ob­sti­nate or­di­nar­i­ness. They meet at an evening class “on cor­po­rate iden­tity and prod­uct brand­ing”. Na­dia wears a long black robe yet Saeed no­tices a beauty mark on her neck. Saeed has fash­ion­able stub­ble rather than the re­quired beard. When Saeed fol­lows Na­dia down­stairs to ask her out, he is sur­prised to see her pick up a black mo­tor­cy­cle hel­met. She rides around their city on a scruffy trail bike.

Saeed is the only and late-life child of two ed­u­cated par­ents whom he loves and re­spects. He lives with them in their flat in a once pleasant part of the city. Later war will “erode the façade of their build­ing as though it had ac­cel­er­ated time it­self, a day’s toll out­pac­ing that of a decade”. Na­dia has bro­ken with her re­li­gious, well-mean­ing fam­ily and lives alone in a rick­ety flat at the top of a house. She likes sex and drugs al­most as much as she likes mu­sic and art. Her dress, Saeed learns, is to pro­tect her from men.

Mohsin Hamid was born in La­hore, ed­u­cated at Prince­ton and Har­vard, and spent many years work­ing in Lon­don and New York as a management con­sul­tant be­fore mov­ing back to Pak­istan. Exit West is Hamid’s fourth novel, and in it his sin­gu­lar clar­ity of thought lights the way as he re­mod­els that an­tique story of lovers flee­ing their home­land. The stud­ied, elegant writ­ing is a foil for the con­tem­po­rary world. Trauma and dan­ger co­ex­ist with the sur­prise of be­nig­nity or moral in­struc­tion, so the novel also has the shim­mer of fa­ble – grave and ten­der, and as idio­syn­cratic as a Jim Jar­musch film. The story of Na­dia and Saeed is punc­tu­ated with dis­con­nected mo­ments hap­pen­ing else­where on earth. Be­ing hu­man is the soli­tary com­mon­al­ity.

When a ca­sual mur­der shat­ters Saeed’s fam­ily the lovers de­cide to flee. One of the plea­sures of Exit West is their man­ner of ex­it­ing: through worm­holes. In the great tra­di­tion of CS Lewis and Enid Bly­ton they step through door­ways in one lo­ca­tion and ar­rive in an­other: a beach in Mykonos, a man­sion in Lon­don and, later, a Cal­i­for­nian hill­side. And they ar­rive in an un­cer­tain world with teem­ing com­pe­ti­tion. The knowl­edge of what can hap­pen to an in­di­vid­ual on any of these exit jour­neys is a de­spair­ing given. We al­ready know more than we can bear. Geog­ra­phy is in­deed des­tiny, and ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing in­tense love and sex­u­al­ity, is scooped up in its in­do­lent cru­el­ties. It comes as a re­lief that they fi­nally reach a strange and pos­si­bly brave new world where ev­ery­one is some kind of im­mi­grant.

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