Last Updated on July 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1027
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid's fourth novel, was published in 2017 to immediate critical acclaim. The story follows two young lovers as they flee their war-torn country through a series of magical portals. Through the deft use of magical realism, Hamid explores the contemporary issues that surround the refugee crisis, including immigration, discrimination, and assimilation.
The novel opens with the two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, meeting each other for the first time. They are both taking an adult education class in an unnamed country where the most religious citizens wear long black robes; Nadia is dressed in these conservative robes (though she dresses so to make men leave her alone rather than out of respect for tradition). We quickly learn that the country is unstable and civil war looms on the horizon.
Saeed, being the more conservative of the two, still lives at home with his parents; in contrast, Nadia lives on her own, even though she isn't married. This independnce angers her deeply-religious parents, and it is revealed that Nadia has no contact with her family as a result of her rebelliousness.
We watch Saeed and Nadia begin to date and fall in love as the city around them continues to destabilize, with radicals randomly murdering citizens. Saeed and Nadia often meet at Nadia's apartment in the evenings, but Saeed never has sex with Nadia because he wants to wait until marriage.
War draws closer: the government shuts down cell service in an attempt to prevent the militants from organizing, and Nadia has a traumatic experience when she goes to the bank and, in the middle of a large crowd of people trying to withdraw their money, is groped by a man.
Saeed's mother dies when she is hit by a stray bullet, and Nadia subsequently moves in with Saeed and his father. However, Nadia does not marry Saeed, and so her decision to live with him is blatantly flouting propriety. When the militants finally take over the city, Saeed and Nadia stop going out, and all three of them stay in the house and listen to the violence raging around them.
Saeed and Nadia want to leave the city. They've heard stories of doors that transport people between countries, but these doors are guarded by the militants. They bribe a man to find them a door, but when the time comes to go, Saeed's father won't go—not wanting to be a burden. Saeed and Nadia leave him as they step through the door.
They are transported to Mykonos, Greece, where they find themselves part of a large group of refugees who are living in a migrant camp there. When Nadia kisses Saeed in public, a forbidden act in the city from which they came, Saeed's conservative side flares, and Nadia senses a darker side of him that she hasn't seen before.
Saeed and Nadia are warned not to trust everyone in the camp, so they stay on their guard. One night, they stay out too late fishing for dinner, and a group of men begins to pursue them. In Saeed and Nadia's rush to get away, Nadia hurts herself by skinning her arm on a rock. In their flight, they come across a cabin guarded by militants, which indicates that there is a door inside (as the militants guard the doors). The men chasing Saeed and Nadia disappear.
Left untreated, Nadia's injury begins to fester. Nadia and Saeed are also running out of money and food. When they go to a migrant volunteer organization that will take care of Nadia's arm, they encounter a local Greek girl who promises to help them get through a door. When she delivers on her promise, Nadia and Saeed step through a door that transports them to a beautiful mansion in London. Other migrants begin to arrive in the mansion as well, and they all claim rooms for themselves.
Tensions in London between natives and migrants begin to heighten, as do tensions between Saeed and Nadia. Saeed misses home and uses prayer as a way to stay connected to his homeland. Nadia doesn't understand Saeed's behavior, and a rift begins to grow between them. Meanwhile, the migrants are sectioned off into a part of London renamed "Dark London," which is essentially a ghetto. In a final act of desperation to drive the migrants out, the native Londoners attack. When this fails, they decide to work together with the migrants to build "Halo London," with the migrants agreeing to clear and settle the land around London in exchange for the promise of a piece of property on which to live. Nadia and Saeed eagerly take up the work, sleeping in a tent at night and dreaming of building more permanent housing during the day. They continue to drift apart from one another, however, and finally decide to go through another door in a last-ditch effort to salvage their relationship.
Passing through the door, Nadia and Saeed are now in Marin, California. There is no refugee camp here, so Nadia and Saeed are able to make their own "home" away from others. Though it seems they are beginning to reconnect, Nadia suggests that they let each other go. Saeed has become increasingly religious, and Nadia has found a job at a co-op where she feels more welcome than she does with Saeed. So, they mutually agree to part ways. Nadia moves into the co-op and develops a relationship with someone there, while Saeed marries a native who is a priest's daughter. They talk intermittently, but eventually fall out of touch.
Fifty years later, Nadia returns to her home city—the first time she's been back since she left with Saeed. The country is now at peace. Nadia sees Saeed, and they fill one another in on their lives since they parted ways all those years ago. Nadia asks Saeed if he ever made it to the deserts of Chile, a place he once told her he wanted to see, and Saeed says he'd love to take her there when she has a free evening. As they depart and the novel ends, neither character knows "if that evening would ever come."
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1795
Author: Mohsin Hamid (b. 1971)
Publisher: Riverhead Books (New York). 240 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Time: Present day
Locales: A war-torn country; Greece; England; the United States
Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, explores the psychological and emotional toll of displacement in a world where people are increasingly on the move.
Saeed, a young man in a war-torn country
Exit WestCourtesy of Riverhead Books
Mohsin HamidCourtesy of Jillian Edelstein
Nadia, a young woman in a war-torn country
A large portion of Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, is set in an unnamed city in an unnamed, war-torn country. Shortly before the real breakout of war, Saeed and Nadia, the novel’s dual protagonists, meet at a class on corporate branding. Saeed is reserved, thoughtful, and spiritual; he is drawn to Nadia, a nonbeliever who dresses in flowing black robes to fend off the unwanted advances of men. Saeed lives with his parents and prays twice a day. Nadia, unusually for an unmarried woman, lives alone and rides a trail bike to work. The two come together, first as friends and then as lovers, as their city falls to insurgency. For about half of Hamid’s compact novel, Saeed and Nadia cling to their daily routines: they go to class and work, they meet for coffee, and they eat psychedelic mushrooms under the lemon tree on Nadia’s tiny apartment balcony.
However, the violence slowly and inevitably closes in around them. At first, Hamid writes, the young people are aware of sporadic outbreaks of fighting on a cellular level. It exists as a feeling “in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration like those emitted by large loudspeakers at concerts.” In scenes that effectively describe the atrocities of the war without becoming overly gruesome, Nadia’s cousin is murdered, and later, so is Saeed’s mother. Bombs fall across the city, and people are confined to their homes, which are frequently raided. A neighbor’s throat is cut, and his blood stains the ceiling of Saeed’s apartment. Amid this anarchy, rumors begin to circulate about the sudden and random appearance of magical doors that open to faraway countries such as Greece, England, and the United States.
While the typically emotionally and physically arduous journey itself to another place has been covered in a multitude of literature, the fictional device of the doors allows Hamid to focus intriguingly and thoroughly on a different part of the refugee experience. Saeed and Nadia, who arrive first on the Greek island of Mykonos, struggle to make a new life together after having left everything they had ever known. “It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born,” Hamid writes. Saeed proves to be the less adaptable of the two. His distrust of others and yearning for home becomes a sticking point in their relationship. Nadia, who had always chafed against the conservative mores of her home country anyway, is eager to embrace new things. Saeed, still grieving his parents, retreats further into prayer, preferring to talk to god more than Nadia. The trauma of migration changes Saeed and Nadia, revealing parts of themselves that the other never knew. Exit West is a story about the refugee experience but also a story about the souring of young romance. (Despite all they have been through, Saeed and Nadia are still at the beginning of their lives.) Through Saeed and Nadia, a relatable and authentic couple attempting just to live in the face of a dire situation that is beyond their control, Hamid pits the everyday against the extraordinary, suggesting, as Sophie Gilbert wrote in her review for the Atlantic, “how familiar and persistent human existence is, even at the edge of dystopia.”
As the novel progresses, Saeed and Nadia move again and again, but so too does everyone else. In London, an influx of migrants spurs a citywide siege, with vigilante citizens fighting to “take back” Great Britain. California, meanwhile, experiences something like a rebirth. The hardship and possibility of life there suggests the frontier of the Old West. Hamid cleverly describes the United States as a land of constant migration and occupation, with one group taking the land from another and so on. He further suggests that migration, in the sweep of human history, is the natural order of things and that perhaps, despite the violent upheaval, everything just might turn out fine. Three-quarters into the book, nearly everyone in the world is fleeing where they were born and migrating somewhere else. This is a prescient narrative choice, as Exit West, Gilbert wrote, is “not putting a human face on refugees so much as putting a refugee face on all of humankind.”
Hamid’s spare style approaches a parable in its detachment. He manages to communicate both tenderness for his characters—flaws and virtues are described in the same reserved tone—and the banality of the horrors they experience. The death of Saeed’s mother, for instance, is couched in a long sentence that describes Nadia’s misgivings about moving in with Saeed. The death ultimately pushes Nadia to accept the living arrangement, and Hamid manages to make this choice heartbreaking instead of crass. In another scene, Saeed’s father feels a pull of nostalgia watching teenage boys play soccer in the street. Venturing closer to their game, he sees that they are not kicking a ball but a human head. The mundane and the horrific are braided together in Hamid’s long, precise sentences, sweeping through time and space. Action featuring Saeed and Nadia is punctuated by short vignettes featuring nameless people across the globe. These people are connected to Saeed and Nadia by time alone. For instance, just after the couple emerge from the haze of their mushroom trip, an old man in La Jolla, California, talks with a young officer who is securing his property after another door opens. Later, as Nadia barricades herself in her apartment, a man in the same city guards a rooftop with a knife and a pistol. As the novel progresses, the vignettes feature more prominently the moving in and out of doors. A love story, about two old men who meet through an open door, makes for a tiny gem of a magical realist tale.
In the New York Times, renowned critic Michiko Kakutani compared the doors in Exit West to C. S. Lewis’s classic children’s fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), in which a magical wardrobe serves as a portal to another world. The doors are a contradictory image, part childlike fantasy and part dangerous quest. Shadowy, mysterious things, they show up without warning in people’s homes and in doctors’ offices. Word of their location spreads quickly. Migrants stream through, smugglers exact their payment for entry, and just as quickly as it opened, the door shuts. Then, another door appears in another place, and the cycle begins again.
To compare the arduous, often fatal journeys of real-world migrants—who set out in rubber boats across the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, ride in pickup truck beds across the Sahara Desert, and hike through rural Eastern Europe—to the opening of a door might sound strange or even reductive. Yet the simplicity of the image suggests a larger view of the mass migration underway all over the world. In another book from 2017, a nonfiction account titled The New Odyssey, author Patrick Kingsley chronicles the various routes by which migrants and refugees travel to Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Access to these passages requires money and a good bit of luck. For a time, migrants from all over pooled into Libya to reach Italy by boat—then the preferred destination became Greece. Passages are shaped by restriction and war. When one route closes, another, somewhere, opens. Like the people in Exit West, real-life migrants catapult themselves into the unknown, traveling until they are stopped or choose to stop, trying their best to sidestep harsh penalties and laborious aid processes.
Hamid, who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and California, published his first novel, Moth Smoke, in 2000. His second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), about a disillusioned Pakistani financial analyst living in the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, was made into a movie starring Riz Ahmed in 2013, the same year that his third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, was published. The latter, a hybrid self-help and coming-of-age story, is told in the second person and written in “prose so pure and purposeful it passes straight into the bloodstream,” Parul Sehgal wrote for the New York Times. “It intoxicates.” In each of his previous fiction works, Hamid has dealt creatively with significant current affairs.
Exit West (2017) continues this trend with its focus on refugees inspired by mass migration stemming from the ongoing conflict in Syria. It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and was named one of the New York Times’s ten best books of the year. Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker wrote that the book “feels immediately canonical, so firm and unerring is Hamid’s understanding of our time and its most pressing questions.” Kakutani was similarly impressed by Hamid’s handle on the times. “By mixing the real and the surreal, and using old fairy-tale magic, Hamid has created a fictional universe that captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines, while at the same time painting an unnervingly dystopian portrait of what might lie down the road,” she wrote. Additionally, reviewers argued that Hamid’s strategic choice to leave Saeed and Nadia’s home country ambiguous effectively makes their experiences universal to the reader. While Exit West largely received glowing reviews, criticism was aimed at the novel’s pace, which seems to flag in the last third. The plot, so carefully sculpted at the beginning of the book, meanders toward a resolution.
- Review of Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. Kirkus, 6 Dec. 2016, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/mohsin-hamid/exit-west. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
- Gilbert, Sophie. “Exit West and the Edge of Dystopia.” Review of Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. The Atlantic, 8 Mar. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/03/exit-west/518802. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
- Kakutani, Michiko. “Review: In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid Mixes Global Trouble with a Bit of Magic.” Review of Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. The New York Times, 27 Feb. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/02/27/books/review-exit-west-mohsin-hamid.html. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
- Motion, Andrew. “Exit West by Mohsin Hamid Review—Magic and Violence in Migrants’ Tale.” Review of Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. The Guardian, 2 Mar. 2017, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/02/exit-west-mohsin-hamid-review-andrew-motion-migrants. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
- Tolentino, Jia. “A Novel about Refugees That Feels Instantly Canonical.” Review of Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. The New Yorker, 10 Mar. 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/jia-tolentino/a-novel-about-refugees-that-feels-instantly-canonical. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.