Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The impact of Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, shortlisted for the Booker, depends on the fulcrum of global migration and displacement. As the title Exit West implies, that movement is westward towards Europe and the Western Hemisphere. No one, or almost no one, is exiting east, and the implication of the word “exit” in this context is that the migration is desperate.

Hamid displays an unnamed middle eastern city that is progressively being taken over by “extremists”. There’s a wonderful lack of specificity here. The city isn’t named, the extremists are presumably religious fundamentalists although Hamid does not say that. The extremists in his novel ban music and forbid even married couples from holding hands in public.

We are introduced to Saeed and his family, increasingly beleaguered in their apartment. Saeed meets Nadia in his class on “corporate identity and product branding”. Nadia is black-robed by choice. Before the extremists have taken over there is no strict code on dress or hair style. The couple form a relationship, increasingly intense.

Nadia, who is determined on an independent lifestyle, has her own rooftop apartment. Saeed is eventually invited there for some overnight visits. But Nadia slips Saeed black robes so he can cover and disguise himself before entering Nadia’s apartment building. He must enter separately…as if they didn’t know each other. And this is in their city’s relatively “liberal” phase, before the extremists have taken over.

Hamid invents his characters with subtle, ironic nuance. Although Nadia is black robe-covered from head to toe by choice, she is not the conservative in this liaison. She wants a full sexual experience with Saeed. It’s he who steadfastly refuses to assent to the full sex act.

Meanwhile ordinary civic life in their town dies like the fading lemon tree on Nadia’s rooftop terrace. Block by block the fighting moves closer to their neighborhood as ordinary amenities like shops, and necessities like power and water, are strangled to extinction. Saeed’s mother is killed when she returns to their parked car to retrieve a lost earring. Nadia reluctantly gives up her apartment and moves in with Saeed and his grieving father. The neighbors vanish like ghosts. The deceased are buried by waysides since it’s not possible to safely journey to the cemetery. Funerals can’t be attended. It’s too dangerous. Mourners try to visit the homes of the deceased later to express their condolences.

Halfway through Exit West, its tenor shifts. I’m not sure what to think of this. I’ve described the first half of this modestly-scaled novel. As it is, it’s a skeletal narrative and Kafkaesque. Even the city in its normative, non-conflictual state seems Kafkaesque to me.

Here come the black doors.

Hamid hears rumors that there are darkened doorways in the city that lead out of it to other parts of the world. You could walk through such a doorway and land instantly say, in Paris. Although you can’t necessarily tell where any doorway leads before passing through it. If you wanted to, you could then turn back and return to your original dystopian location, but who would want to do that?

In a rich spin, Hamid says that these doors have even been confirmed by Western media. The extremists, after they have taken over, place guards on all known black doors to prevent people from leaving the city.

Exit West astonishes me.

Saeed and Nadia use a black door to flee to Mykonos, then to London and finally to Marin county in Northern California. Throughout their wanderings, the reader sees these landmark Western locales as someone outside the feast of normalcy looking in.

Since Hamid has invented the “black doors” there are no border controls that can stop the illegal immigrants. The very concept of illegal immigrants breaks down. And Hamid has shown us “migrants” who don’t migrate. They quantum leap to somewhere else. They form communes. In Marin they attempt to form their own electorate. It’s an alternative world where state sovereignty is breaking down. Perhaps Mohsin Hamid is saying that it should break down.

As Saeed and Nadia experience these new environments, their individual patterns diverge. Hamid reminds us that our individuality is impacted by new experience, what constitutes us as people veers us off. Saeed and Nadia become less of a couple as they become more like themselves.

I finished Exit West last night. I’ve dashed off this review this morning because later this evening the Booker prize will be announced in London and it may be this book. I don’t know what “deserving to win” means. I suspect that it doesn’t mean anything. But this is a beautiful book if originality can be called beautiful. Exit West is skillful and caring and it shows us our world at this moment. To capture our world in its historical moment is quite an achievement for such a brief volume.