A refugee couple’s search for a way out

The latest from the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a magical-realist take on a refugee crisis. Robin Yassin-Kassab thinks it could be his strongest work yet.

Exit West depicts a world at war in which destruction, refugee camps and lockdowns are a part of life. AFP
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Saeed works in an advertising agency, lives with his parents, and prays irregularly “as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way”. Nadia, against the wishes of her family, chooses to live alone. She rides a motorbike and wears black robes to ward off predatory men. They meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding. They soon become friends, then something more.

Both are trying to build their lives in increasingly precarious circumstances. Saeed’s father is a university lecturer in a country that hasn’t done well by its professional class. He blames himself for not providing for his son: “The far more decent thing would have been to pursue wealth at all costs.”

They inhabit a city “teetering on the abyss”, filling up with refugees and prone to random violence. This could almost be Lahore, where Mohsin Hamid, the novel’s author, was born. But the war, when it arrives, feels like a tale from the Arab counter­-revolutions. The encroaching militants behave like ISIL, outlawing music and staging public executions.

So Nadia and Saeed's hometown could be many places, and this is part of the novel's point. Exit West is formally adventurous despite the initial impression of realism. Set in the near future, or in an alternative and intensified present, the tale twists between magical realism and gentle science fiction.

At its centre is a magical image. Naturally, the war changes people’s relationship to windows, “the border through which death was possibly most likely to come”. But their relationship to doors changes too. Rumours spread of doors closely guarded in secret locations, infinitely dark doors that open onto random distant lands.

Fleeing unbearable constriction, Saeed and Nadia pay to step through one such portal, to a Greek island, then after a series of misadventures through another, to a London squat peopled mainly by Nigerians, and finally through a third, to a Californian shanty town.

Further stories, hints of transcontinental multiplicity, are studded within the frame. Perspectives open briefly on Mexico, Japan, Austria, Australia and the Emirates. Those who pass through the doors have no idea where they’ll arrive. Some fall foul of nativist rioters, others are aided by pro-migrant activists. Old men find romance, and a suicidal Englishman, travelling against the grain, finds happiness in Namibia.

There are scenes of the migrant crisis we’ve already witnessed, on our screens at least – refugees marching through Europe, shivering in tents, trapped at border posts, falling prey to gangsters and racists – as well as some we haven’t. London here is under military lockdown and split, like Homs or Aleppo, into electrified and dark zones. Hyde Park is a refugee camp overflown by swarms of drones.

Despite the doors there is no true escape, no final access to settled security. Everywhere is precarious, the novel suggests, because everywhere is so profoundly and irreversibly connected.

Globalisation, in all possible senses of the word, has been the key theme of Hamid's chain of superlative novels. The double (religious and financial) meaning of the title of his best-known book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, illustrates his method of imagining our global connections through metaphors both subtle and powerful.

Exit West may be his strongest novel yet. Certainly the most provocative in its experiments with genre, the prose is elegant, fluid and self-assured. And it's a masterpiece of clarity. A single paragraph can render a character absolutely distinct.

At its heart it’s the story of a relationship, the waxing and waning of love, and this is rich in wise observation. At times, writes Hamid, Saeed and Nadia are “not unlike a couple that was long and unhappily married, a couple that made out of opportunities for joy, misery.”

It’s a very rare novel that grasps the spirit of the time as firmly as this one does. It addresses directly but not at all didactically the 21st century mediatisation of our lives and our global politics of racial, economic and political inequality, but also of mobility, though not necessarily upward, and the consequent collapse of such previously solid categories as national and geographic identity: “for what did those divisions matter now in a world full of doors?”

It points constantly, too, to the commonality of human experience, particularly of transience and sudden transplantation. For, if not in space, “we are all migrants through time”.

Exit West challenges its audience to respond more compassionately, more imaginatively, to our tumultuous historical moment – and so itself meets one of literature's highest challenges.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a critic, novelist and the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.