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Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West depicts the refugee crisis with empathy and magical realism

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid Riverhead
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is a disconcertingly timely novel, one about migration, refugees, terrorism, and the rise of jingoistic nativism in the West. If it were cheaply done or sentimental, it would have such a ripped-from-the-headlines quality that you would expect to hear the dun-dun of the Law & Order gavel at the close of every chapter.

But Exit West is entirely the opposite. It’s a thoughtful, beautifully crafted work that emphasizes above all the ordinariness and humanity of people who become refugees. And in its most basic form, Exit West is a love story.

Saeed and Nadia live in a nameless country that is teetering on the brink of a civil war. They are both carelessly cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile young professionals who meet at a night class on corporate branding. Nadia is not religious, lives alone, drives a motorcycle, and wears a black robe — “so men don’t fuck with me” — while Saeed, who thinks about being more religious from time to time, lives with his parents, who tease him gently about his girlfriends. As they begin their love affair, Nadia dresses Saeed in a black robe so that she can sneak him past her landlord into her apartment.

Saeed and Nadia live their pleasantly dull lives in a pleasantly dull fashion — they eat at Chinese restaurants, smoke pot, listen to records, scroll through the news on their phones — right up through the opening salvos of their country’s civil war. Even once the war has begun in earnest, Hamid’s narrative stays determinedly focused on the mundane details of survival: how to stockpile food, how to travel through blockades, how to barricade windows and hide gold, how to catch up on the news when the internet is blocked. What’s central to the narrative is the ordinariness of it all: how easily a normal, dull life can be smashed apart, and how frequently it happens.

Into this grounded, realistic narrative enters a magical device: a series of doors that can transport people from impoverished, war-torn countries into stable ones. It might seem like an intrusive bit of magical realism, but it actually fits perfectly into the project of the novel. The doors, as Hamid has said, allow the narrative to dispense with the long and harrowing journey of migration — the journey that allows non-migrants to so easily cast refugees as the other — and focus instead on the time that takes up most of Saeed and Nadia’s lives: the time before migration, and after.

It helps that Hamid’s lovely, propulsive sentences are there to pave the way for the magical doors. They build, one clause piling relentlessly on top of another, the momentum pushing the reader through the book almost too quickly to appreciate how elegant the imagery is — but not quite. The combination of heightened language and rapid pacing helps integrate the magic doors seamlessly into the rest of the book. Take the first time we see one:

The door to her closet was open. Her room was bathed in the glow of her computer charger and wireless router, but the closet doorway was dark, darker than night, a rectangle of complete darkness — the heart of darkness. And out of this darkness, a man was emerging.

He too was dark, with dark skin and dark, wooly hair. He wriggled with great effort, his hands gripping either side of the doorway as though pulling himself up against gravity, or against the rush of a monstrous tide. His neck followed the head, tendons straining, and then his chest, his half-unbuttoned, sweaty, gray-and-brown shirt. Suddenly he paused in his exertions. He looked around the room. He looked at the sleeping woman, the shut bedroom door, the open window. He rallied himself again, fighting mightily to come in, but in desperate silence, the silence of a man struggling in an alley, on the ground, late at night, to free himself of hands clenched around his throat. But there were no hands around this men’s throat. He wished only not to be heard.

The tension of the passage, with its long, many-claused sentences, propels you forward — but the image of entry through the doorway as a kind of birth or a fight to the death is so arresting as to make you want to savor every word. Of course magical doors exist in this universe: Why wouldn’t they?

Inevitably, the countries on the other side of the magical doors react violently to the influx of refugees that comes with them, and it is this conflict that forms the spine of the book’s latter half. But the conflict is always grounded in the all-too-human story of Saeed and Nadia and their slowly disintegrating relationship.

Exit West is by turns fantastical and all too real, and always thoughtful and gripping. It’s a novel about ideas that also cares deeply about the pleasures of language, and a novel of disconcerting timeliness that does not depend upon its historical context to be compelling. Its language and ideas might have a particular resonance today, but they would be worth reading at any time.

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