Author Mohsin Hamid © Laurent Denimal

2017 Man Booker Review: Exit West

4th September 2017

By Jill Glenn

There’s something deceptively lilting about the style of Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel (his second to be in contention for the Man Booker prize, ten years after ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ was shortlisted). From the first sentences – ‘In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard…’ – ‘Exit West’ reads like a fairytale, but one very much for the modern age.

You never learn the name of the city, or the country, in which Saeed and Nadia meet and court, and the deliberate ambiguity adds to the universality of their story. They could be the young of anywhere, not just anywhere with the crisis of civil war raging. They are wedded to their smartphones; when internet connectivity and mobile phone signals are withdrawn by the government (‘a temporary anti-terrorism measure, it was said, but with no end date given’), the uncertainty and anxiety are palpable: ‘Nadia and Saeed, and countless others, felt marooned and alone and much more afraid’. Their relationship develops quickly, but always feels precarious. Saeed is devout; Nadia is not – she wears a ‘conservative and virtually all-concealing black robe’ for her personal protection (‘So men don’t fuck with me’) and rides a motorbike. It makes her no less vulnerable, though, in a city in which the infrastructure is disintegrating, and, alienated from her own family, she moves in with Saeed and his father. As life becomes unsustainable Nadia and Saeed prepare to leave.

By using the idea of a ‘portal’ from one location to another – ‘rumours had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country’ – Hamid avoids the need to account for the physical route from one life to another. It’s not about the journey; it’s about being transplanted, the cognitive shock of being plunged into a new life, where no-one knows the rules and everything is flimsy: the refugee experience at its most raw. Saeed and Nadia find themselves in Mykonos, then in London, then in San Francisco. They cleave together; they pull apart. You don’t care for them as individuals (if this book falls down anywhere it is on characterisation) but as representatives of everyman and everywoman; you care for what happens because you care for humanity.

The narrative is loose, shifting. Short sections describing what’s happening in other lives, elsewhere on the planet, interspersed randomly, contribute to the overall sense of disconnection. ‘Exit West’ is both a fable about the breaking down and rebuilding of societies and a richly-detailed almost documentary account of those societies under strain. It’s very perceptive about how people connect when everything is alien, and it’s also strong on the detail of daily life. Long, winding sentences add to the lyricism which is so perfectly at odds with the world it’s describing.

Part magical realism, part dystopian diatribe, timeless and rootless, ‘Exit West’ is a bold and daring novel. In lesser hands, its inventive approach might well lack coherence; with Mohsin Hamid at the helm, it just about works.

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