Mohsin Hamid’s new novel about two refugees in particular, and refugees in general, comes at a very interesting point, because while the city of the refugees remains unnamed in the book, it could be Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, or any country in the world today, where it’s citizens are struggling with the consequences of war and militancy. Nadia and Saeed, the two protagonists of the novel, meet in an evening class on Corporate Identity, a usual setting for two unusual people. Saeed works in an ad agency, lives with his parents, prays regularly, while Nadia sells insurance, lives alone, rides a bike, enjoys psychedelic mushrooms, doesn’t pray, yet wears black robes so, “men don’t fuck with me”, she tells Saeed. They live in a city bursting with refugees, but still not openly at war, but as things worsen, Saeed and Nadia desperately find a way to escape, which leads us to a journey through Mykonos, London, Marin, and back to their home city through doors that open up to other places.
The doors add a touch of magic realism to the book, and also avoid the course that most books about refugees follow, Hamid avoids the journey that they undertake to get from one place to another, instead focuses on what happens, when Saeed and Nadia try to find home in strange new places, which are often better than what they have left behind, but sometimes are not. The doors as a device remind us of CS Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, where the passage to Narnia is through a wardrobe. Exit West focuses on how daily life finds a way in the transient life of a refugee, amidst changing circumstances, check points, and snipers. The cost of physical loss through migration isn’t at the core here, but the cost of leaving behind roots, yet always seeking the same in every new place is intrinsic to the plot. Beautifully written, and very different from Hamid’s previous novels, Exit West doesn’t look at refugees alone, but their impact on human kind in general, and how the west will also be impacted by migration, concluding that in the end we are all migrants, whether we stay in the same house forever, or if we move from country to country (“We are all migrants through time”).
The novel may look like a struggling love story on the outside, but on closer inspection is almost a mirror for society today, but in all of that, Hamid manages to find some hope, there is a kiss between two old men, one Brazilian, and one Dutch, there is an English man who finds happiness in Namibia, which he reaches through a door in his bedroom. Exit West is terrifying, magical, heartbreaking, and hopeful, all at the same time, and will have you reaching out for your pen to underline all the lines in the book.