A refugee couple’s search for a way out
The latest from the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a magical-realist take on a refugee crisis. Robin Yassin-Kassab thinks it could be his strongest work yet
Saeed works in an advertising agency, lives with his parents, and prays irregularly “as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way”. Nadia, against the wishes of her family, chooses to live alone. She rides a motorbike and wears black robes to ward off predatory men. They meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding. They soon become friends, then something more.
Both are trying to build their lives in increasingly precarious circumstances. Saeed’s father is a university lecturer in a country that hasn’t done well by its professional class. He blames himself for not providing for his son: “The far more decent thing would have been to pursue wealth at all costs.”
They inhabit a city “teetering on the abyss”, filling up with refugees and prone to random violence. This could almost be Lahore, where Mohsin Hamid, the novel’s author, was born. But the war, when it arrives, feels like a tale from the Arab counterrevolutions. The encroaching militants behave like ISIL, outlawing music and staging public executions. So Nadia and Saeed’s hometown could be many places, and this is part of the novel’s point. Exit West is formally adventurous despite the initial impression of realism. Set in the near future, or in an alternative and intensified present, the tale twists between magical realism and gentle science fiction.
At its centre is a magical image. Naturally, the war changes people’s relationship to windows, “the border through which death was possibly most likely to come”. But their relationship to doors changes too. Rumours spread of doors closely guarded in secret locations, infinitely dark doors that open onto random distant lands.
Fleeing unbearable constriction, Saeed and Nadia pay to step through one such portal, to a Greek island, then after a series of misadventures through another, to a London squat peopled mainly by Nigerians, and finally through a third, to a Californian shanty town.
Further stories, hints of transcontinental multiplicity, are studded within the frame. Perspectives open briefly on Mexico, Japan, Austria, Australia and the Emirates. Those who pass through the doors have no idea where they’ll arrive. Some fall foul of nativist rioters, others are aided by pro-migrant activists. Old men find romance, and a suicidal Englishman, travelling against the grain, finds happiness in Namibia.
There are scenes of the migrant
Exit West depicts a world at war in which destruction, refugee camps and lockdowns are a part of life.
Mohsin Hamid Hamish Hamilton Dh50