May 2017


‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid

By Helen Elliott
Hamish Hamilton; $32.99

In an unnamed city two young people meet and fall in love. Their situation has an obstinate ordinariness. They meet at an evening class “on corporate identity and product branding”. Nadia wears a long black robe yet Saeed notices a beauty mark on her neck. Saeed has fashionable stubble rather than the required beard. When Saeed follows Nadia downstairs to ask her out, he is surprised to see her pick up a black motorcycle helmet. She rides around their city on a scruffy trail bike.

Saeed is the only and late-life child of two educated parents whom he loves and respects. He lives with them in their flat in a once pleasant part of the city. Later war will “erode the façade of their building as though it had accelerated time itself, a day’s toll outpacing that of a decade”. Nadia has broken with her religious, well-meaning family and lives alone in a rickety flat at the top of a house. She likes sex and drugs almost as much as she likes music and art. Her dress, Saeed learns, is to protect her from men.

Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore, educated at Princeton and Harvard, and spent many years working in London and New York as a management consultant before moving back to Pakistan. Exit West is Hamid’s fourth novel, and in it his singular clarity of thought lights the way as he remodels that antique story of lovers fleeing their homeland. The studied, elegant writing is a foil for the contemporary world. Trauma and danger coexist with the surprise of benignity or moral instruction, so the novel also has the shimmer of fable – grave and tender, and as idiosyncratic as a Jim Jarmusch film. The story of Nadia and Saeed is punctuated with disconnected moments happening elsewhere on earth. Being human is the solitary commonality.

When a casual murder shatters Saeed’s family the lovers decide to flee. One of the pleasures of Exit West is their manner of exiting: through wormholes. In the great tradition of CS Lewis and Enid Blyton they step through doorways in one location and arrive in another: a beach in Mykonos, a mansion in London and, later, a Californian hillside. And they arrive in an uncertain world with teeming competition. The knowledge of what can happen to an individual on any of these exit journeys is a despairing given. We already know more than we can bear. Geography is indeed destiny, and everything, including intense love and sexuality, is scooped up in its indolent cruelties. It comes as a relief that they finally reach a strange and possibly brave new world where everyone is some kind of immigrant.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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