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

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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

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