In my review of Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t pay much heed to the sense of place it evoked. In large part, that’s because I found it unconvincing – perhaps deliberately, the bardo of the title feels timeless, and the characters speak not so much to themselves in their own idiolects but to us, the twenty-first-century reader, in ours. At no point did it really feel as if I was observing the nineteenth century, or communing with antebellum spirits; I was being told stories, in the most effective and accessible way possible.
Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, on the other hand, revolves around locality, is focused laser-like on the ways in which places characterise themselves, and are in turns characterised; it is a novel about how cities and countries are in an endless process of becoming themselves, and of simultaneously resisting that change – sometimes violently and often begrudgingly, but almost always eventually.
The novel’s central characters, Nadia and Saeed, meet in its opening pages, at a business course being held in a nameless city in a nameless country. Saeed works in advertising, Nadia in insurance. He is the secular son of a teacher and a university professor; she wears a long black robe whenever she is in public, but smokes marijuana and listens to soul records in private. “If you don’t pray, […] why do you wear it?” he asks her when they first drink a coffee together. “So men don’t fuck with me,” she replies [p. 16]. This complexity of identity is the novel’s lodestar.
You may assume their city is Aleppo before its destruction, or Fallujah before it descended into chaos. In one scene, however, Saeed shows Nadia photographs of Western cities manipulated to appear lit only by starlight, and “whether they looked like the past, or the present, or the future, she couldn’t decide” [pp. 55-6]. Their city could be ours: its religions are never mentioned by name, much less its streets or neighbourhoods. The first half of the novel takes place almost in its entirety there, and Hamid’s writing is often at its strongest in those passages: precisely because it is nameless, one feels the city’s slippage from normality to conflict in this town alongside the characters, feels their taking leave of it as an almost equal wrench.
As the novel opens, the city is already used to refugees filling many of its public spaces, as if they are not harbingers of the future. Hamid is excellent at the incremental degradations of societal collapse: “because of the flying robots high above in the darkening sky, unseen but never far from people’s minds in those days, Saeed walked with a slight hunch” [p. 82]; the man who delivers early on in the novel some magic mushrooms to Nadia’s apartment “would [in a few months] be beheaded, nape-first with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort” [p. 38]. Saeed’s mother is shot “through the windscreen of her family’s car […] not while she was driving, for she had not driven in months, but whiole she was checking inside for an earring she thought she had misplaced” [p. 72]; the city’s “relationship to windows now changed […] A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come” [p. 68]. The world doesn’t end; it changes.
By the time Saeed’s father insists that the young couple leave him behind – “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind” [p. 94] – the reader may feel the prickle of tears. Exit West methodically makes refugees of its readers. The method open to Nadia and Saeed to escape their homeland, however, is not one available to refugees in our own world: in Hamid’s novel, particular doors, often for no reason and certainly with no explanation, become portals to another place – and, if the authorities don’t get to them first, refugees may slip through them to one or another form of safety.
These wormholes have a simple effect on the narrative: they enable Hamid to make his characters, and his readers, rootless whilst also still focusing on place rather than transit. Usually, a novel has to focus on one or the other state: Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015), for example, brilliantly depicted the lives of refugees and migrants in one English town, but in so doing became a static story of settlement; Dave Eggers’ What is the What (2006), meanwhile, primarily emphasised its protagonist’s lengthy journey from Sudanese boyhood to American refuge. In Exit West, via the conceit of the doors, Hamid can both demonstrate the liminality and itinerant lot of the refugee whilst also settling in specific locations and assessing – animating – them.
For example, Nadia and Saeed first emerge – and now, the novel having made its assumed Western readership complicit in its refugees’ movement, places gain their names – in Mykonos, at the edge of one of many refugee camps, “with hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colours and hues – many colours and hues but mostly falling within a band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea” [p. 100]. The world of Exit West is on the move, and at this point resembles our own: “without warning people began to rush out of the camp and Saeed and Nadia heard a rumour that a new door out had been found, a door to Germany” [p. 107], though eventually they are shuffled through to London by a clinic worker who grows quickly intimate with Nadia.
London is where the novel begins another of its increasingly radical shifts. Where in Mykonos, Nadia and Saeed were still new to their refugee status, strolling around the island almost as tourists, in London – and amidst the manifold pressures of so large a city so hostile to its newcomers – things begin to become difficult and calcified. They find a room in a house, but the refugees’ houses slowly break down in ethnic groupings. Saeed begins to feel kinship with his “own kind” [p. 143], but Nadia wishes to remain with the Nigerians who have formed their group in the building around their room. There is violence between these gangs, even as the authorities bear down on them without perceiving the particularities they read onto themselves. Then a war begins, “military and paramilitary formations […] fully mobilized and deployed in the city from all over the country” [p. 159]; Britain takes up arms against it migrants … and then pulls back. Even as the wedge in Nadia and Saeed’s relationship becomes ever more plain, Hamid begins to strike a note of hope: “Perhaps [the British] had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open” [p. 164].
From here, the novel proceeds further into the couple’s – and perhaps our own – future, beginning gently to evaporate away. Nadia and Saeed move through a door to one of the many new cities being constructed for the migrant populations worldwide – this one in California – and Saeed becomes increasingly nostalgic and religious, while Nadia does not. Their relationship cools to nothing: “Saeed wanted to feel for Nadia what he had always felt for Nadia, and the potential loss of this feeling left him unmoored” [p. 188]. The future, however, begins to seem more hopeful: rather than a tenement they live in a house, with wireless data and solar panels and batteries and rainwater collectors. The world, and its peoples, adapt. The final scene of the novel takes place back in their nameless home city, fifty years on, and Nadia “watched the young people of this city pass, young people who had no idea how bad things once were, except what they studied in history, which was perhaps as it should be” [p. 228].
Throughout all this, and in the novel’s weakest, most tangential, moments, Hamid intersperses scenelets of reconciliation: a refugee emerges from a door in the large house of a paranoid Westerner, does not experience the spontaneous desire to rape and kill her and instead simply seeks out a window through which he may leave; a newly-arrived elderly Brazilian man meets an old Dutch man and they share a kiss; an old woman lives in the same house for her entire life, as the world around her nevertheless changes beyond all recognition. If these brief interludes sometimes feel abrupt or disconnected, by the end of the novel their purpose becomes clear: they are examples of the coming-together Exit West proposes and, in its early identification of reader with refugee, enacts.
In contemporary science fiction, this sort of optimism has almost entirely disappeared. In one respect – its vision of transit – Exit West reads more like magic realism than SF, but as Nadia and Saeed proceed into a potential future Hamid seems capable of imagining a transformation rather than a half-century of things getting worse. If its pivotal moment – London pulling back from the abyss – feels in these days of Brexit far-fetched, we too might yet want to share Hamid’s optimism: “It has been said that depression is a failure to imagine a plausible desirable future for oneself,” his omniscient narrator declares, “[… but] the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic” [p. 215].
All this makes for a novel both elegant and urgent. It is a slim work that somehow manages to be more expansive than many a novel twice its length. It reads like reportage and fairy tale, news story and futurology. It takes on a topic of the greatest pitch and moment – “all over the world,” as Hamid has it, “people were slipping away from where they had been” [p. 211] – and emerges equal to the task. It is both universal and specific, generalised and granular. In her New Yorker review of the novel, Jia Tolentino suggests that the novel “feels instantly canonical”; this is the sort of statement that might in some cases be hyperbolic, but in the case of Exit West it feels wholly earned. In it the Booker judges may have their winner.