Exit West by Mohsin Hamid


Much as I appreciated his previous book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I was not prepared for this brilliant work. The tone of the book is an unemotional telling of the upheaval of societies throughout the world in the near future. The audiobook, read by Hamid himself made the recounting of the most dramatic events told in a calm voice all the more disquieting.

As we are introduced to the main characters, an independent young woman and a pious young man who live in an unnamed Muslim city, that country is overwhelmed by a fundamentalist-led revolution. Nadia left her family household to live on her own while Saeed lived and prayed with his parents. They are thrown together by circumstances:  after Saeed’s mother is killed and it is unsafe for Nadia to live alone, she moves in with Saeed and his father who regards her as his daughter. Nadia and Saeed are interested in each other sexually, but Saeed wants to be celibate, in a limited way, until they marry.

When the war makes life in their country intolerable, the father urges them to leave, but declines to go himself. They begin to hear stories of about doors.

Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this deathtrap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door and it could happen without warning to any door at all….Nadia and Saeed discussed these rumors and dismissed them….Each of the doors became partially animate as well with a subtle power to mock, to mock the desire of those who desire to go far away, whispering silently from its door frame that such dreams were the dreams of fools.

The rumors were true and when Saeed and Nadia went through one of the doors, they found the passage to be as had been described, both like dying and being born. Thus begins their new life which later took them to London where empty houses, parks, and unused lots which had become vacant were being used by immigrants. In certain areas legal residents were in a minority and eventually nativist extremists began forming militias.

In this threatening and dangerous atmosphere, Saeed developed an interest in moving to a house where people from their home country lived, while Nadia began to take in active role in the governance in the house where they lived with mainly Nigerians. He was drawn to his own kind while Nadia developed more of an identity with the other refugees. The tribalism throughout London began to be replaced by the distinction between those who want to be able to go through the doors and those who guard the doors.

At the last moment the nativists stepped back from the brink of expelling (or slaughtering) the immigrants and recognized that the doors could not be eliminated without wholesale killing. Their sense of decency changed their course. The lives of Nadia and Saeed, as well as the other immigrants took a more mundane turn, living in worker camps to create infrastructure for the expanded population.

Later they go through the doors again to California and found those who considered themselves native were, like the Londoners, stunned by the changes in their homeland. Another “layer of nativeness was composed of those who others thought directly descended even in the tiniest fraction of their genes from the human beings who had been brought from Africa to this continent centuries ago as slaves. While this layer of nativeness was not vast in proportion to the rest, it had vast importance for society had been shaped in reaction to it and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it.” There’s story of an old Chinese woman who had lived in the same house all her life, through the death of her first husband, then the second one. She had known the names of everyone on her street, but now she knew no one; with the advent of the doors, all sorts of people arrived and they all seemed more at home than she was.  “And when she went out, it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives because we can’t help it. We’re all migrants through time.”

Nadia and Saeed found their way independently in this society and while they grew apart, they maintained a connection in case one  needed help from the other. A lifetime later, Nadia returned to the city of her birth; there she met with Saeed and they shared tea and memories of their lives together and apart.

It is rare to read a book that is so successful at both the intimate stories of the lives of individual characters and a dramatic theme that is global. And in this case the message about the global politics is timely:  The movement of individuals throughout the world has never been easier while the desire to limit it so strong. I hope his optimism about the nativist urge of Londoners (and others) being restrained by their decency is warranted.

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, Riverhead Books, 2017, 240 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the UVa and public library and from Amazon.

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