Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Have you ever read a book right after it was published and realized that this book was meant to be read right now, right at this time, and that it speaks powerfully about what is unfolding around the world? I don’t think it’s an accident that Mohsin Hamid is writing about refugees fleeing their native country which has crumbled, or that he speaks to the family ties that we forge and break from this kind of global uncertainty. I was surprised by this short novel, but also deeply compelled by it.
The center of this narrative is a couple: Saeed and Nadia, who meet randomly and find themselves thrown together amidst their city’s crumble into state-sanctioned violence and warfare. With this spontaneous and fast-tracked intimacy, they try to create a life amidst traditions and strife. When they hear about doors that lead to other areas, they decide to pack up and move somewhere else, leaving their old lives behind entirely. What they find is a world connected in mutual suffering, as well as the ways in which relationships evolve and change over time.
I’ve read two of Hamid’s three other novels (The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia) and I personally think this is his best. It’s poignant and beautifully written, particularly as it describes the terror in the city and its effects on the citizens who live there. The characterization of Saeed and Nadia is nuanced and complex, filled with the spoken and unspoken complexities that make up an individual and a couple. Finally, the concept of the doors introduces a fantastical element to an otherwise brutally realistic depiction of world crisis today—it’s interesting to think about where a magic door could take you if you decided you must flee your country. It also contains an interesting critique of nationalism in the West, which is highly timely in the face of Brexit and the rise of fascism in the United States.