We are so accustomed to thinking in terms of national identity and borders between countries it’s interesting to wonder how we’d see each other if these things became truly porous. That seems to be the mission of Mohsin Hamid’s extremely thoughtful and compelling novel “Exit West.” It’s an exercise in what would happen if the barrier between one country and another were no longer a passport control line, but simply a door that opens from a residence in one country to a residence in another country. In this story these portals between nations appear with increasing frequency. It turns strangers around the world into literal neighbours and frees passage for thousands of refugees who want to build a life for themselves elsewhere. It’s a stroke of imaginative daring similar to what Colson Whitehead brilliantly achieved in his novel “The Underground Railroad” where this fantastical plot device makes us re-conceptualize our standard sense of reality and allows wild possibilities within the story. But this is also very much a novel about love, the way it changes over time as we change and how different environments can radically alter our relationships.
One of the most striking things about this story is that only two characters are named. These are Nadia and Saeed, the couple whose journey we follow throughout the novel. The author is very aware of how a name doesn’t just signify a person, but also often denotes a particular economic status, religious background, cultural tradition and global region. So, while the few different countries they magically enter are named, their war-torn city of origin is not. By withholding names from this place and the many people introduced in the story Hamid demonstrates a second way of making us reconsider our preconceived notions. The great danger with performing these feats of storytelling is that the novel becomes more about the concepts built into the author’s structure and less about the reader’s emotional connection to the story.
While the structure and Hamid’s occasionally laboured sentence structure was jarring at first, I found myself drawn into the romantic trajectory of Nadia and Saeed’s lives together. They are an interesting pair where Nadia is a biker keen on partaking in recreational drugs, but continuously wears traditional black robes wherever they go despite being non-religious. This produces an interesting reaction from people, particularly later on in the novel where some assume her clothing means she’s living under oppressive men when really it’s her choice. Saeed has a more conservative nature and struggles with the question of faith, but I found myself really connecting to him since his most longed-for dream is to visit the deserts of Chile to stargaze in their clear skies – something I myself have dreamed about since seeing the powerful documentary ‘Nostalgia for the Light.’
Hamid depicts the ebb and flow of this couple’s strong relationship through a long period of time. It felt similar in some ways to Alain de Botton’s recent novel "The Course of Love" in how these stories expose all the gritty reality of long term relationships. At times this style of showing the different stages of love through time can get too close to an intellectual exercise. But Hamid introduces an interesting element where he considers the way our environments impact our relationships. He describes how “personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” So while Nadia and Saeed naturally change as they age their ideas and desires also alter with the different places they come to live in when stepping through portals into other countries. Naturally, these changes also come to affect their relationship in dramatic ways.
Another striking thing this novel does is powerfully represent a city being overwhelmed and held under the sway of a new extremist order. The nameless city Nadia and Saeed grew up in is slowly overtaken by insurgents and the author captures so well the sense in how normality is gradually altered: “War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes.” This felt very realistic in how they witness people with certain names that are associated with a particular denomination being hunted down and paranoia becomes rife where everyone is aware of being monitored (both by neighbours and a series of drones which police the city.) The powerful 2014 film ‘Timbuktu’ gives a similarly striking sense of what it’s like to live somewhere which becomes overwhelmed by strict new ideologies that are rigidly enforced and significantly alter or destroy the day to day lives of ordinary people. The way Hamid shows this in his novel raises poignant questions about how different people react in tense periods of social and political upheaval.
While the situations and global changes that the author imagines in this novel are radically destabilizing, something I really admired about it was the level of optimism that Hamid maintains. Often when we think about the larger issues this story raises we can only conceive of society collapsing or destroying itself. Yet, Hamid offers another point of view stating how “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.” This is a story which allows for possibilities that are hard to imagine when facing the grimness of the news every day. Obviously immigration is a touchy political subject, but I admire the way “Exit West” challenges us to think about this from different angles and makes us reconsider them through a particular couple’s dramatic journey.