Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is the Pakistan-born author’s fourth novel and was published in 2017. In the same year it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Kirkus Prize, Medici Book Club Prize, Neustadt Prize, and the St. Francis College Literary Prize and more recently the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award; it was also selected by the New York Times as one of the best books of the year, and in 2018 has won two more literary awards in the US, The Inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize in the 'fiction' category.
Hamid’s prescient novel merges elements of fantasy with realism, to examine the question of borders and boundaries and one of the burning issues of today’s world: the mass migration of people to the industrialized west from countries derailed by endemic strife. At the same time, the text comments on the struggle of individuals for fulfillment, space and self, against all odds, throughout history. Hamid also captures admirably the growing hostility, xenophobia and, indeed, tribalism, in the west towards “alien” people, but also suggests possibilities of commingling, acceptance and a more peaceful future.
Jia Tolentino’s review in The New Yorker conveys both the complexity and veracity of Hamid’s narrative and its comment on the movement of refugees in a ‘globalized’ world, riven by social iniquity and the inequality of nations. She illuminates this further by quoting Hamid’s interview with John Freeman in Literary Hub in which Hamid discusses the ideas and the vision, which shaped his tale.
There is, in Exit West, constant underlying movement, and a sense that intrinsic laws of moral physics are at work. In a recent interview, Hamid noted that the current political paralysis in America and Europe could be attributed, at least partially, to our denial of the reality of mass migration. ‘The more that people who are economically freezing and precarious become aware of places where people are economically warmer and more safe, the more they want to move,’ he said, adding, ‘We need to figure out how to build a vision for this coming reality that isn’t a disaster, that is humane and even inspiring.’ In Exit West, Hamid rewrites the world as a place thoroughly, gorgeously, and permanently overrun by refugees and migrants, its boundaries reconfigured so that ‘the only divisions that mattered now were between those who sought the right of passage and those who would deny them passage.’ He doesn’t flinch from the mess and anger that come from redistribution and accommodation” (Tolentino).
Throughout the novel, Hamid specifies the destinations that migrants try to reach such as Greece, Britain and the United States, but does not give a specific identity to the places that they migrate from. This can be read as an oblique commentary on the west’s disregard for the country, culture, individuality and circumstance attached to the word “refugee” or “migrant”. At the same time, this namelessness challenges concepts of the Other and gives the migrants’ home-city a universalism which gives voice to the trauma of broken cities and broken lives, whether in Syria or Iraq or Pakistan or elsewhere.
Hamid’s “enticing strategy is to foreground the humanity” (Nguyen) of his two young protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, “whose urbanity, romantic inclinations, upwardly mobile aspirations and connectedness through social media and smartphones mark them as ‘normal’ relative to the novel’s likely readers. At the same time, Hamid insists on their ‘difference’ with readers who may Western” (Nguyen). Nadia and Saeed live in a city which is “swollen by refugees” and “teetering on the edge of abyss” (1) but had “had yet to experience any major fighting, just some shooting and the odd car bombing” (2). People try to carry on their lives the best they can. Saeed, a bearded man with “a studiously maintained stubble” (1), and Nadia, a young woman draped in “a flowing black robe”, first meet at “an evening class on corporate identity and corporate branding” (1). Their appearance suggests that they are religious, yet their very first conversation reveals they are not. This is one of the many instances where Hamid deliberately creates an image with evokes stereotyped assumptions, which are then disabused.
Saeed, entranced by the beauty mark on Nadia’s neck, visible above her long robes, expects her to be conservative. He hopes she will not consider him forward for inviting her to coffee, after class. Her response astonishes him. She looks straight at him and asks “Don’t you say your evening prayers?” (2). He mutters feeble excuses “Not always. Sadly” (2). She announces “I don’t pray” (3), then walks off to the car park, dons a black helmet (not the expected demure headscarf), straddles her motorbike and drives off.
Hamid continues to subvert gender role through his portrayal of the strong willed, independent and assertive Nadia. She works in an insurance company. As a single young woman she has defied convention in the city and her pious parents, to live on her own. She wears the black robe to protect herself from unwanted male attention. Or, as she tells Saeed, “So men don’t fuck with me” (16). Saeed works in an advertising company. He follows the city’s accepted social norm for young, unmarried professionals: he lives with his parents. His mother, an erstwhile school teacher and his father, a university professor, live in a flat in an old colonial building. Their once-upmarket area has become a crowded commercial district. The bookshops and cinemas they once explored together have become arcades for electronic goods. Pollution often obscures the night sky. But one day Saeed glimpses the bright light of Mars shining through. The infinite possibilities this symbolizes—joy, hope and new worlds beyond—are disrupted by the sound of automatic gunfire.
Similarly Hamid builds in the increasing brutalization and derailment of the city with a devastating quietness as a foil to Nadia and Saeed’s luminous relationship: they meet in cafes and restaurants; they smoke joints together and share shrooms together. Ultimately, they become lovers. But they are overtaken by the city’s violence, economic disasters and civil war. Nadia’s cousin is blown up by a truck bomb. Her shroom dealer is beheaded. Food grows scarce. Militants launch an assault on the stock exchange. They are joined by supporters from the hills and within the city. They start controlling entire neighbourhoods. The authorities finally impose curfew. This brings more tribulations: checkpoints, barricades, soldiers and tanks. Conspiracy theories abound. Internet and phone services are suspended. Nadia and Saeed’s offices are shut down. In this litany of disaster and chaos, Saeed’s mother is killed by “a stray heavy-caliber round passing through the windscreen of her family’s car and taking with it a quarter of Saeed’s mother’s head while she was driving” (72).
In the city, there is a growing need to escape, to find safer, more secure, more prosperous countries which Nadia and Saeed and others have heard of, or glimpsed online or through the electronic media. In The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, the protagonists are able to walk through doors, which take them from their known world into the unknown and fantastic. In Exit West, Hamid employs his own magic realist vision to create secret doors in Nadia and Saeed’s city – and others across the globe – which open out into other lands, unimpeded by borders and boundaries. Here “characters move through time and space […] There are no descriptions of life-or-death journeys in the backs of lorries or on flimsy dinghies. No middle passages. Just the cognitive shock of having been freshly transplanted to tough new terrains” (Sukhev).
In The Literary Hub, Hamid explains his narrative choice thus:
I’ve always been uncomfortable with straight-up realism. Novels aren’t real: they’re words made up. And modern neuroscience and ancient religions both tell us what we call reality isn’t real either. In my first three books I bent reality mainly through framing devices, the stories of how the stories were being told. This time, relaxing the laws of physics, in just one, specific particular way, opened up space for the story. (Freeman).
Hamid broadens, and gives further context to his narrative by interspersing the story of Nadia and Saeed with brief tales of different migrants—people unknown to them—who enter and exit through these doors. In Perth, a dark nameless man enters through the cupboard door into the room of a pale, white somnolent woman and leaves through her window. In Tokyo, on a cold winter night, a Japanese man enters a cul-de-sac and sees two Filipino girls clad in tropical attire; he starts to follow them. In San Diego, California, an elderly ex-naval officer sees a policeman on the perimeter of his property and asks if “it is Mexicans coming through, or are they Muslims” (47). In Vienna, some of Nadia and Saeed’s fellow countrymen commit a horrific massacre. In retaliation, a violent and enraged mob attacks innocent immigrants. But Hamid also opens out other possibilities—of friendship and acceptance; in Amsterdam, an elderly man speaking only Dutch and a ‘wrinkled man’ speaking only Brazilian Portuguese, become friends, then lovers; here the secret door also enables a ‘two-way’ communication channel, allowing them to visit together the wrinkled man’s home-town, Rio de Janeiro. All these interspersed incidents make a symbolic comment on migration: an unfamiliar land; hostile strangers; the loss of home and loved ones—and yet, hope.
Nadia and Saeed’s resolve to leave their battered, destroyed city comes halfway through the book. By then bombs and missiles, drones and robots are a daily hazard. Nadia, no longer safe in her flat, has moved in with Saeed and his father. Their migration and their quest for a better, safer life, begins with anguish, heartache and guilt: Saeed’s father insists they should leave, but refuses to go with them. They endure more suffering before an exploitive agent finally allows them through a secret door. As they move from the known to the unknown, the “passage was both like dying and like being born” (98). They find themselves on a beach “fronted by a beach club” (99). They are shooed away, in sign language, by “a pale skinned man” (100). They reach a refugee camp “with hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colors and hues but mostly falling within a band of brown” (100), where they learn they are on the scenic Greek island of Mykonos. Nadia and Saeed’s daily life is beset with great hardship, including discrimination, theft and near-starvation, until Nadia’s new friend, a local nurse – helps them escape through another secret door.
Hamid uses to great advantage familiar landmarks, incidents and the political rhetoric of contemporary media reports to create Nadia and Saeed’s dystopian world. The two of them find themselves in London, in a palatial bedroom, “with a row of white buildings opposite, each perfectly painted and maintained” (117) and nearby cherry trees “with buds and a few white blossoms” (118). The house is one of several large vacant homes belonging to the rich: it offers luxuries such as hot and cold running water, towels, television and an entire room of their own. Nadia and Saeed settle in as squatters, as do other refugees from different countries—Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, Thailand. Riot police try to drive them out. Nadia’s and Saeed’s street – Palace Garden Suburbs – is attacked by a pale skinned “nativist mob” which looked to Nadia “like a strange and violent tribe’ (131). Both Nadia and Saeed suffer injuries. Meanwhile “all over London house and parks and disused lots were being people in this way, some said by a million migrants, some said by twice that’” (126). The outbreak of anti-migrant riots leads to a television discourse to “reclaim Britain for Britain”. The city is soon divided into “dark” and “light” zones—the former deprived of electricity, public services, and watched over by drones and helicopters and soldiers; the latter a brightly lit, well-cared-for and bustling urban hub. But Hamid gives this London episode a surprising twist, one where wisdom, acceptance and decency win out over animosity and rejection. Nadia and Saeed’s tale of penury, loss, adjustment, and self-discovery takes them onward from a development project for migrants – a bleak exploitive worker camp in London – to another door and another city: hilly Marin on the edge of the Pacific, near San Francisco.
In Marin, most ‘natives’ had been exterminated long ago and those who considered themselves native had been there for several generations and were either light skinned or had genes linking them to the slaves who had come from Africa long ago. Here, Nadia and Saeed discover a new sense of identity and self, which becomes a part of the growing, continuous and universal process of movement and change in their world.
Hamid describes with great skill how migration changes individuals and their personalities. Nadia and Saeed’s response to new environments, challenges and experiences, leads to growing differences between them. She continues to wear her black robe (which he can’t understand) but she befriends and finds much in common with fellow migrants from other countries. Saeed is overcome with a great longing for his homeland and seeks out fellow-countrymen, although these new friends of his have little in common with those he knew in his home city and hold more radical views. But Saeed also finds himself drawing increasing succour from prayers, throughout his many trials. Finally, Hamid portrays Nadia and Saeed so altered by their journeys and the passage of time, that they are no longer the people they used to be: they must part company to fulfill the trajectory of their new lives.
Exit West is a lucid and imaginative work which reinforces Hamid’s reputation as an innovative writer and says much about the world in which we live. It is also a reminder that the history of humankind is essentially a tale of migration: people have traversed continents in quest of adventure or a better life or, more often than not, as a matter of survival.
Freeman, John “The First Post-Brexit Novel: Mohsin Hamid’s
Exit West” Literary Hub December 6, 2016
[Interview with Mohsin Hamid].
Viet Thang Nguyen, “A Refugee Crisis in the World of Open Doors”, New York Times (New York) March 10, 2017.
Jio Tolentino, “A novel about refugees that feels instantly canonical”, The New Yorker (New York) March 10, 2017.
Sukhev Sandu, “Exit West—A magical vision of the refugee crisis”, The Observor (London) March 12, 2017.
Citation: Shamsie, Muneeza. "Exit West". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 26 January 2018 [https://staging.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=38792, accessed 01 June 2023.]