Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017. 240 pp)
Mohsin Hamid is the internationally bestselling author of the novels Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and the essay collection Discontent and Its Civilizations. His books have been translated into more than thirty languages and have won or been short-listed for numerous prizes, including the Man Booker Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, and the Betty Trask Award. Hamid’s essays and fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Granta, and many other publications. Born in Lahore, he has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.
The Rockets’ Red Glare
I experienced my first Independence Day in my new home with my family. We live in a housing development on the side of a cliff. We reside in the highlands.
As dusk approaches, I walk down the community path to the edge of this cliff. A picnic table overlooks a stunning vista. To the left, three mountains spar in an eternal boxing match to crown a king of the Cascade Foothills. Tiger Mountain is the tallest—it’s orientation perfect for a steady rush of paragliders in summer months. Squack Mountain lives in the middle, almost always overshadowed by its siblings, and Cougar Mountain gets all the inhabitants.
Sluicing through these foothills, I-90 begins its unending path to Boston.
Far beyond, the faint silhouette of Seattle grows out of the horizon like an etching of soot on a poorly cleaned window.
And middle-right of the view, Lake Sammamish glimmers with a placid peacefulness, glowing with the LED-fueled lights of pleasure craft one thousand strong.
Whether on water, on foot, or mountaintop, the poor, tired, and weary masses await a fireworks show on this lake.
A Mind Wandering
But perched from my lookout, my ever-pessimistic brain thought about the tactics of war and what it would truly feel like to experience war firsthand. Would these countless exploding mortars, intending to whoa and titillate an audience with bright and celebratory colors sound the same during a tactical offensive?
We’ve been blessed to live in a section of the world rubber-stamped as conflict free, but such a world logically can never last infinitely. So, my mind wanders I what would happen. How would I protect my family? What would we do for food? Would I continue to work? If work closed, would I be able to pay the mortgage? Would we even have money and a functioning bank?
While these notions keep me up at night, plenty of places around the world have encountered the shift from safe and secure to upended and dangerous.
When Cities Fall
In the timely and timeless masterpiece, Exit West, Mohsin Hamid tells the story of two young students falling in love. The catch, however, is in context and plot device.
Hamid begins his tale in an Aleppo-influenced city. Saeed and Nadia meet at night class and a romance buds set against the gradual take over and violent rule of the rebel class.
In its early pages, Hamid illustrates the brutality of war as a city, a homeland, transforms into something foreign and violent.
“In times of violence, there is always that first acquaintance or intimate of ours, who, when they are touched, makes what had seemed like a bad dream suddenly, evisceratingly real” (31).
Quickly, the narrative turns from a couple figuring out a relationship and where the balance between sacred and secular lies to all-out survival mode as the characters try to find a way out of the city.
“Conversations focused mainly on conspiracy theories, the status of the fighting, and how to get out of the country—and since visas, which had long been near-impossible, were now truly impossible for non-wealthy people to secure, and journeys on passenger planes and ships were therefore out of the questions, the relative merits, or rather risks, of the various overland routes were guessed at, and picked apart, again and again” (52-53).
Here, Hamid adds a magical realism element. Where refugees work diligently to seek asylum where they might be taken, the refugees of Exist West look for run-of-the-mill doors, magically transformed into a transportation device. Step through one of these special doors and you’re in a different country; you’ve exited west.
“In this group, everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was Nadia and Saeed quickly located a cluster of fellow countrywomen and -men and learned that they were on the Greek island of Mykonos, a great draw for tourists in the summer, and, it seemed, a great draw for migrants this winter, and that the doors out, which is to say the doors to richer destinations, were heavily guarded, but the doors in, the doors from poorer places, were mostly left unsecured, perhaps in the hope that people would go back to where they came from” (106).
Crisp prose highlights Exist West and while its magical elements offer intriguing and relevant metaphors for the difficulty of refugees finding safe harbor in the world, the stark exhibits of conflict evoke uncomfortable views of Western affluence and what it might be like for war to hit our shores someday. For now, our explosions only occur at dusk on the fourth of July. But, my imagination always goes to the fear of the day that might change.
Exit West brings these fears to life and ought to be read widely. Recommended.
Verdict: 5 out of 5