By David Nilsen
Mohsin Hamid’s much-anticipated fourth novel Exit West makes deft use of a single fantastical element to create a magical realist novel of tremendous effect. Often, magical realism is an excuse for laziness, allowing the writer easy outs whenever they get stuck. Hamid allows himself a single magical device and uses it sparingly, and his restraint rewards his readers with a story of emotional power and social relevance.
The story begins in an unspecified Asian city that could easily be the Lahore, Pakistan, of the author’s birth. A militant insurrection is fighting government forces for control of the city, and civilians are dying, disappearing, and still trying to go about their lives. Two young adults, Saeed and Nadia, meet at a college night class and begin dating. They get coffee, eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and listen to records and get stoned in her apartment. It is a thoroughly normal courtship but for the bombs exploding around the city, the fatally enforced curfews, and the shifting battle lines that render parts of the city unusable. When the militants take the city once and for all, Nadia abandons her apartment and moves in with Saaed and his parents. Nadia and Saeed relish the opportunity to spend so much time together, even as the world crumbles around them.
One evening they were huddled together in this way, under a blanket, in the flickering light of a paraffin lamp, for there was no grid electricity in their part of the city anymore, and no piped gas or water, municipal services having entirely broken down, and Saeed said, “It feels natural to have you here.”
“For me too,” Nadia replied, resting her head on his shoulder.
“The end of the world can be cozy at times.”
She laughed. “Yes. Like a cave.”
“You smell a bit like a caveman,” she added later.
“And you smell like a wood fire.”
Eventually the situation becomes so dire they realize they must get away. Overland routes are blocked, but rumors have become widespread in the city of strange doors–portals–that deposit you somewhere else in the world when you step through them. Nadia and Saeed pay a large sum of money to a shady character who tells them when and where to show up for their escape voyage. They enter a dilapidated house, wondering if they’re about to be mugged or worse. Instead, they are instructed to step through a dark portal, and emerge out into sand and sunlight far away. It is not the last such journey they will have to take.
These doors are the only fantastical element in the book, and Hamid uses them to explore what would happen to the current immigration climate if the avenues for leaving an unsafe place and going to a (hopefully) safer one were suddenly expanded and randomized. He looks as realistically as possible at the sociological, logistical, and political ramifications of this one added wrinkle in an already charged global atmosphere surrounding the rights of refugees and immigrants. The results are heartbreaking at times, but ultimately offer hope.
All of this is viewed through the eyes of Nadia and Saeed, and Hamid is equally realistic in tracing the surges and recessions of their relationship. He does an excellent job of describing how daily life continues in the midst of chaos, and this deft hand prevents us from feeling any jarring disconnect between the quiet tenderness and drama of this couple’s relationship and the globe-spanning political ramifications the novel is concerned with. This is aided also by Hamid’s ability to step back from moments of violence and render them beautifully, as in this passage early in the book as their city is falling:
The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds startled by gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree. They rose, singly or in pairs, and fanned out above the city in the reddening dusk, as the sun slipped below the horizon, and the whir of their rotors echoed through windows and down alleys, seemingly compressing the air beneath them, as though each were mounted atop an invisible column, an invisible breathable cylinder, these odd, hawkish, mobile sculptures, some thin, with tandem canopies, pilot and gunner at different heights, and some fat, full of personal, chopping, chopping through the heavens.
The above paragraph also shows off Hamid’s prose style, a sometimes reckless caroming between images and ideas that could be tiresome if it wasn’t so effective and controlled. The sometimes haphazardly assembled sentences seem to echo the uncertainty of the beleaguered and transient main characters. The style remains easy to read and often quite lovely, as evidenced above.
Exit West is an empathic and affecting novel, one that is as graceful in its handling of global movements as it is in the quiet moments between Saeed and Nadia. As evidenced in his sophomore novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid is masterful at creating organic suspense, allowing natural consequence to create tension without being manipulative. He’s at it again with his newest offering. Exit West is the best novel I’ve read yet in 2017.