Mohsin Hamid, born in Pakistan, raised in the US and in Pakistan, graduate of both Princeton University and Harvard Law School, now a dual citizen of both Pakistan and the UK, is fast becoming one of the most respected writers in the English-speaking world, and rightfully so. His first book, Moth Smoke, published in 2000, a brilliant book about a drug-using adulterer in Lahore, definitely pushed the envelope in Pakistan, though it became hugely popular both in Pakistan and everywhere. It was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. His second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is probably his most famous, and was made into a major film here in the US. His third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, sort of floated under the radar but I enjoyed it very much. All this is to say that I was very much looking forward to the release of his latest, Exit West, on 7 March 2017. I bought it that day, and finished it days later.
I find it hard to imagine that this one won’t receive some major recognition in this coming year’s round of serious literary awards.
Now, Exit West, is basically a love story, with quite an expansive arc given the brevity of the novel as a whole. It concerns Nadia and Saeed, two young folks in a nameless country ostensibly in the Middle East. Their coming together, their falling for one another, coincides with the gradual deterioration of the political situation in their country and city, and this deterioration is characterized in this wonderfully nonspecific way that corresponds to our collective, common understanding of how such things have gone, and are going, in recent history and in the present. It could be Cairo or Damascus or Tunis or Sana’a, and life for our two young lovers, and the maintenance of their burgeoning relationship, becomes increasingly difficult and tenuous. Then, in a wonderfully magical twist, rumors begin abounding of these mysterious doors that exist in certain places in their city, doors that one can pay to go through, doors that will lead to other places. And Nadia and Saeed take the opportunity to escape, and magically appear on a Greek island, in a refugee camp, where they spend some time, before availing themselves of another door, that transports them to London, where, after some pretty hostile anti-refugee sentiment roils and builds to a fever pitch, at last availing themselves of a final door, which delivers them to the Bay Area, in California.
The obvious, perhaps even trite, thing to say here is that this is a timely novel. And it’s true, but I won’t belabor the point. Hamid, with his magical pen and this magical universe, says much about the current refugee “crisis” occurring on our planet, and does so beautifully with this particular door-based fantastical twist.
More important, though, is Hamid’s treatment of the relationship between our two protagonists. Through their “travels” and the various experiences of these two refugees, their love waxes and wanes and ebbs and flows and evolves. It’s beautiful and deep and true and frustrating and not at all cheesy. Hamid writes fiction like a poet, and through his prowess, this love story shines through all the muck, nativism, tragedy, political crisis, and death that swirls around it throughout this narrative. And herein, I think, lies the strength of this novel. Yes, there’s this whole refugee-tale angle here, but what’s important is that these refugees are real, multidimensional characters, dealing with the same life dilemmas that we’re all dealing with in the midst of everything else. And in that regard, Hamid has does us all a great service by writing this book.