REVIEW: 'Exit West': A Slender, Powerful Novel About the Refugee Experience

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books)

By Margot Singer

In an unnamed city on the brink of civil war, a young man named Saeed meets a young woman named Nadia. Saeed works for an outdoor advertising firm, Nadia for an insurance agency. Like young people everywhere, they listen to music, smoke a joint, fool around, go out for Chinese food. But just as Saeed and Nadia begin to fall in love, the city in which they live erupts into violence. Mortar fire and bomb blasts turn the streets to rubble heaps. The power is cut. No one can work. Bodies hang from streetlamps; drones buzz overhead. The blood of an upstairs neighbor, his throat slit by the militants, stains the ceiling red. Saeed and Nadia decide to flee.

Mohsin Hamid’s slender novel Exit West takes us into the heart of a city that could easily be Lahore, Aleppo, or Kandahar. “Geography is destiny,” Hamid’s narrator states, and but for geography, Saeed and Nadia could be you or I. Exit West makes visceral how quickly and easily life as we know it can come to a terrifying end. “One moment we are pottering about our errands as usual,” the narrator states in the novel’s opening pages, “and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”

Although the reader yearns for a love story’s happy ending, Saeed and Nadia have nothing but “transient beginnings and middles” as their attempts at intimacy are strained by the migrations they must brave. Hamid’s terse, spare third person narration anatomizes the impossibility of commitment and connection in a world with no stability, no freedom, and no safe space. Nadia hides her free spirit behind black robes; grieving and helpless, Saeed can only pray. Migration, in one of the novel’s sharpest insights, is not just spurred by violence, but constitutes an act of violence in itself. As Nadia reflects after Saeed’s father refuses to emigrate but makes her promise to stay with his son: “by making the promise he demanded she make, she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

In Exit West, refugees escape through surreal dark doors that transport them to real places such as London and California and Greece. Through this device, Hamid handily dispenses with the mechanics of getting his refugees from place to place (there are no unseaworthy skiffs or lethal desert treks), focusing instead on the experience of arriving on the other side. Saeed and Nadia crawl out of their door to find themselves in a West awash in refugees. They huddle in a migrant camp on Mykonos, cram into an abandoned London mansion. Threatened by “nativist” mobs, the refugees are confined to a third world-like “dark London,” off the grid. “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move”; caught up in this mass of unmoored humanity, struggling for survival, they are left “adrift in a world where one could go anywhere but still find nothing,” not least a way back to who they were and what they might have been.

As the only surreal aspects in an otherwise realistic fiction, the novel’s doors—opening and closing unpredictably, guarded by “agents” taking bribes—remain little more than a contrivance. Likewise, the vignettes interspersed throughout the narrative, each featuring a different refugee emerging through a door, gesture toward the multifaceted experiences of global migration, but are more disruptive than revealing, and never really come to life.

The first half of Exit West is deeply moving in its close and tender observations of Saeed and Nadia coming together as their world is coming apart. The latter part of the novel, however, loses some momentum as Saeed and Nadia slowly separate. By the end, living in a solar-powered shanty overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in a futuristic Marin, they seem more urban homesteaders than refugees. Hamid wants to make a universal point: as Saeed and Nadia forge new romances and merge into their peaceful Californian community, they must leave their younger selves behind. We are all migrants, the novel suggests, traveling through time.

Exit West is an important, moving, and timely book. As tensions over the current refugee crisis rise around the globe, Hamid’s novel helps us empathize with those compelled to flee. And despite its contemporary resonance, it leaves us with comforting reminder of the age-old promise of immigration: to open a door onto a better life.

Margot Singer, a professor of English and creative writing at Denison University, is the author of Underground Fugue, published this month by Melville House.