The novels of Mohsin Hamid (How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia) range from conventionally structured stories to fiction disguised as self-help manuals. In his fourth novel, Exit West, Hamid explores the worldwide refugee crisis using simple, almost allegorical language spiced with an unexpected dose of speculative fiction. The novel follows a young couple who join a wave of migrants as their city collapses into violence. But in Hamid’s imagined world, there are doorways that lead from one city to another and allow people (mostly dark skinned) to emerge magically in other countries (mostly Western), much to the consternation of the (mostly light skinned) resident population.
Like all of Hamid’s novels, Exit West is a love story, but one that exists within the structure of a moral thriller. Bold and curious Nadia meets the quieter, more restrained Saeed in night class while the unnamed country where they reside teeters on the brink of a civil war. Their attraction is immediate, and their path to intimacy is made more intoxicating by the dangers around them. At first, their relationship is like many other young couples’; they listen to music, sit in cafes and smoke a little weed. But when Saeed’s mother is hit by a stray bullet, the couple decides to move in together. They also begin to heed the rumors about doors that serve as portals from one country to another. Making the ultimate decision to leave their homeland, and paying a middleman a hefty sum, Saeed and Nadia are led to a door that takes them to a refugee camp on a Greek Island. Later doors lead to a private room in an abandoned mansion outside London and then a windswept coast in Marin County, California. Each move tests the couple’s stamina and courage, and although they are dependent on one another for survival, the ties that bind them grow weaker with every transition.
Exit West is political without being didactic and romantic without being maudlin. The storytelling is stripped down to essentials; though the novel is epic in scope and geography, it is only 240 pages. Hamid masterfully handles the shifts from the symbolic to the real, the unnamed to the specific. Exit West is a richly imaginative work with a firm grip on what is happening to someone somewhere right this minute.