Mohsin Hamid has earned a reputation for writing with his finger on the pulse of the future. And his latest novel is no exception. Exit West tells the story of a young couple forced from their homeland by the threat of civil war to begin a new life. Though Hamid began writing the novel a few years ago, amidst recent headlines of nationalism, societal upheaval, and travel bans, Exit West reads as eerily prescient.
Set in an unnamed supposedly Middle Eastern country, the book begins by introducing Saeed and Nadia, natives of “a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war.” They meet during a night class and begin a series of dates that turn into a tender, playful relationship in contrast to their bleak surroundings. All the while, the effects of civil war creep closer to their doorstep.
Day by day, militant forces grow stronger, competing for primacy against the government’s army while the city’s citizens are caught in the crossfire. Soon, the simple pleasures of life turn an ominous shade as a glance out a window risks the possibility of sniper fire or facial lacerations from exploding glass. War ages the city and its tenants as though accelerating time, “a day’s toll outpacing that of a decade.” Such imagery is not difficult to conjure today, even without Hamid’s vivid prose.
As the fighting escalates, so does the intimacy of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. Before long, they consolidate their resources and move in with Saeed’s father until survival becomes unthinkable and they are forced to leave. Amidst the warfare, rumors of doors have begun to surface accompanied by the hope that they lead to safer destinations. With no other options and the last of their resources, Saeed and Nadia pay for travel through a door, which transports them instantly to a new location.
For such a realistic environment, the doors feel like an odd inclusion at first. But they come to shape the focus of the book. Most of the refugee stories we hear today encompass the hard-fought journey of moving from one home to the next. With his addition of the doors, Hamid omits the need to describe a journey of displacement preferring to focus on why people leave and how they adapt to a new homeland. They also allow him to include small-scale excursions through brief scenes of other men and women who have traveled through a door.
Despite a wide array of characters, Saeed and Nadia alone are given names, though their development remains relatively thin. We learn little of their history or upbringing, yet Hamid leverages this absence in a remarkable way. They eat, sleep, make love, pray, and depend on others like the rest of us. And while certain narrative anchors indicate a home in the Middle East and a proclivity toward Islam, Saeed and Nadia remain in flux creating a transience that invites readers to embody the characters they follow regardless of religion or nationality.
When we think about forced migration, we often do so from a distance. Hamid considers Exit West an effort at closing that gap. Prior to its release, he said, “Everyone is a migrant even people who are in the same place, because that place changes over decades. If we can have this shared notion of migration, it becomes easier to have a conversation.” While the war of Exit West accelerates the changes of its unnamed city, all places morph into unrecognizable landscapes given enough time.
Our homelands are more than a mere holding place. They contribute to our identity, which is why displacement ravages humanity in such significant ways. Hamid’s doors provide not only a clever escape from a burdensome narrative, but they also visualize our proximity to such displacement. And thanks to modern advancements in technology and travel, distance has begun to collapse.
Some may disagree on the notion of humanity’s shared migratory state. Perhaps Exit West will fail to level that playing field. But no one really keeps their home. Eventually we are all forced to travel through our own door, uprooted and on the move. Whether due to time, career, family, war, death, or any other number of factors, no one remains permanently still. We are constantly changing like the world around us. That’s a piece of what binds together our essential humanity.
Maybe that commonality can help us consider how to better face change. Maybe it can help us better care for our neighbors and exercise compassion from a distance. Maybe it isn’t so strange for Hamid to remind us that we are all in fact “migrants through time.”
Building Your Bookshelf
Here are a few novels to help build compassion by adding them to your bookshelf.
American War by Omar El Akkad
In 2074, the Second American Civil War erupts. Attempting to curb the tide of environmental disaster, Congress—largely composed of northern representatives—passes legislation outlawing the use of oil, an illustrious resource in the south. Two decades later, the country limps along crippled by war and the outbreak of an invisible pathogen released by a rogue soldier. American War traces the story of Sarat Chestnut, her family’s home in the Louisiana bayou, and their fight for survival in a rapidly crumbling union.
Chemistry by Weike Wang
When the unnamed Chinese narrator receives a marriage proposal from her long-time boyfriend, her world begins to spin. She’s committed three years to her graduate studies at a prestigious Boston university and worries that marriage would derail her potential career. Faced with her dilemma, she confronts a burden of expectations from herself as well as those placed upon her by her parents. Chemistry is a crafty coming-of-age novel and a thoughtful exploration of purpose, the drive for success, and the influence of parenting on personal identity.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Alan Conway, the prolific writer and creator of Atticus Pünd—a detective critics claim rivals Sherlock Holmes—has written his ninth and final novel in the Pünd series: Magpie Murders. However, when editor Susan Ryeland begins reviewing the manuscript she discovers a mystery that leaps beyond its pages threatening to destroy her career and jeopardizing the reputation of many around her. Shifting between the manuscript and Susan’s world, it’s two books for the price of one.
Cover image by Randy Tarampi.