By Abeer Hoque
“We are all migrants through time.”
Mohsin Hamid’s 4th novel Exit West like much of his work reflects and refracts our troubled times. The book follows two young lovers, Nadia and Saeed, from an unnamed country that is being torn apart by civil war. Their love affair, tender, particular, and fraught with all the usual wonders and challenges of the human condition is one of the highlights of the book: “…he was unprepared for the feeling of awe that came over him, the wonder with which he then regarded his own skin…”
Hamid quickly and artfully outlines characters, in a way reminiscent of Margaret Atwood. Like in his last novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the female protagonist in Exit West is both iconic and relatable. His sentences are long and elegant, sometimes spanning a page or more: it felt like chanting or rocking back and forth, a sense of oral storytelling. The novel reads like a terribly present and prescient fable of refugees and migrants and natives, of lovers and families, of borders and war and all the ways we make and lose homes: “…when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind…”
The conceit of the magical doors that lead in and out of conflict zones felt a little forced. Of course, it would have been a much longer book if Hamid had taken as much time to describe the passage between geographies as he spends on the geographies themselves. Perhaps that wasn’t what he wanted to write about, but it struck me. I did love the bits about love and relationships, all sharp and sweet and yearning: “…a mouth that did little but did it so very well…”
I also appreciated how un-judgmental the narrative was. It’s easy to point fingers at brutally idealistic militants, at fear mongering natives, at East versus West, and so on. But Hamid tells the stories of Exit West with an even handed tone, focusing on the individual and the personal. Given this style and its sweeping global reach, the novel could feel fatalistic, hopeless even, but it doesn’t because it has so much heart.