Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
Buzz: Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlisted. Picked among 2017's most anticipated books by The Guardian, New York Times, Buzz Feed and more.
Exit West is an intriguing book. On the thinnest skin of surface it’s a love story, set against the backdrop of a refugee crisis. But barely any scratching is needed to reveal what lies beneath: - something that feels more like a parable, or philosophical text, than a novel, asking complex questions about displacement, migration and the resolution of the global tensions they cause.
The success of this book lies in how well that surface layer manages to humanise the refugee experience, to make the issues below seem truly personal. And it does it in the strangest way. Rather than showing the inhuman suffering of the character’s real-life counterparts, Hamid almost strips them of it, both through a distant narratorial style and an unusual plot device. A little depressingly, this makes them more relatable. Instead of a crushing sympathy for the suffering of others, you have an unsettling feeling that this could be you.
It starts in an unnamed city, in a seemingly Middle Eastern country, on the brink of war - an Every-city, a place where normal modern life happens, until it doesn’t. Nadia and Saeed catch each other’s attention at an evening class, start texting incessantly and meet in their lunch breaks from the office. Deep in this flirtatious-text stage of their relationship they have their mobile receptions cut: suddenly they have no way of arranging where to meet next, or even knowing if each other got home safely. This is the kind of hardship most of us can easily imagine.
Their relationship is accelerated unnaturally when war breaks out and they form a unit to survive together, fleeing the country. Here is where the plot device steps in: a bit of unexpected magical realism. Mysterious doors are appearing, which you can step through to another part of the world in an instant. Nadia and Saeed buy access to one on the black market and step through onto a Greek Island, later using them to move to first London, then Northern California. There is none of the threat and peril of the migrant journey, they are just instantly facing the everyday challenges of displacement. Connected now with our characters, the parable begins.
When Saeed, Nadia, and thousands of refugees from all the world’s war torn areas step into London, rather than escaping conflict, they bring it with them. At this point, Exit West seems to be suggesting that migration is doomed. That if we let people escape conflict zones to lands of plenty and peace then all it does is transform everywhere into a conflict zone. But then the book reaches a turning point, where British forces on the brink of a violent military sweep step back. ‘Step back’, we’re told in turn, ‘think about how this response would end, ask what it would solve.’ And Hamid turns to imagine pragmatic solutions, and the parable plays out with positivity and hope.
Towards the end the narrator comments: “It has been said that depression is a failure to imagine a plausible desirable future for oneself” and it’s an idea Hamid expanded on further in an interview with The New Yorker last year, saying: “Part of the great political crisis we face in the world today is a failure to imagine plausible desirable futures. We are surrounded by nostalgic visions, violently nostalgic visions. Fiction can imagine differently.” It is this future he provides for us, no added imagination required.
If Exit West says one thing it’s that the extreme end of mass migration is inevitable, and these people could so easily be you. Stop thinking it’s ‘us’ and ‘them’, either a ‘them’ to resist OR a ‘them’ to sympathise with. Instead, start finding a way for an integrated world to work for everyone now.
Published: 2nd March, Hamish Hamilton