London is under military lockdown and split, like Homs or Aleppo, into electrified and dark zones. Hyde Park is a refugee camp overflown by swarms of drones
crisis we’ve already witnessed, on our screens at least – refugees marching through Europe, shivering in tents, trapped at border posts, falling prey to gangsters and racists – as well as some we haven’t. London here is under military lockdown and split, like Homs or Aleppo, into electrified and dark zones. Hyde Park is a refugee camp overflown by swarms of drones.
Despite the doors there is no true escape, no final access to settled security. Everywhere is precarious, the novel suggests, because everywhere is so profoundly and irreversibly connected.
Globalisation, in all possible senses of the word, has been the key theme of Hamid’s chain of superlative novels. The double (religious and financial) meaning of the title of his best-known book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, illustrates his method of imagining our global connections through metaphors both subtle and powerful.
Exit West may be his strongest novel yet. Certainly the most provocative in its experiments with genre, the prose is elegant, fluid and self-assured. And it’s a masterpiece of clarity. A single paragraph can render a character absolutely distinct.
At its heart it’s the story of a relationship, the waxing and waning of love, and this is rich in wise observation. At times, writes Hamid, Saeed and Nadia are “not unlike a couple that was long and unhappily married, a couple that made out of opportunities for joy, misery.”
It’s a very rare novel that grasps the spirit of the time as firmly as this one does. It addresses directly but not at all didactically the 21st century mediatisation of our lives and our global politics of racial, economic and political inequality, but also of mobility, though not necessarily upward, and the consequent collapse of such previously solid categories as national and geographic identity: “for what did those divisions matter now in a world full of doors?”
It points constantly, too, to the commonality of human experience, particularly of transience and sudden transplantation. For, if not in space, “we are all migrants through time”.
Exit West challenges its audience to respond more compassionately, more imaginatively, to our tumultuous historical moment – and so itself meets one of literature’s highest challenges.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is a critic, novelist and the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.