EXIT WEST, by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead, 231 pp., $26.
When you encounter a mysterious door in a fairy tale, you expect to be transported to a world that’s dramatically different from your own, whether it’s Narnia or Wonderland. The heroes at the center of Mohsin Hamid’s slim yet poignant new novel, “Exit West,” start off in a hellish reality — an unnamed city, presumably somewhere in South Asia, where helicopters and drones darken the sky — but the magical portals they discover don’t offer a true escape from that reality but rather lead to new destinations with their own set of dangers. It’s a brilliant, fantastical framework that, in Hamid’s hands, highlights the stark reality of the refugee experience and the universal struggle of dislocation.
When Saeed and Nadia meet, the country is on the brink of a civil war between the government and militant fundamentalists. Even as the violence around them heightens, their love story begins like any couple’s. Saeed is an introspective, somewhat nebbishy nine-to-fiver who’s dazzled by Nadia, a fiery, motorcycle-riding rebel who covers her body head-to-toe in a burqa — not as an expression of devotion, but as a symbol of defiance.
Soon, they’re texting one another constantly, doing mushrooms together, having frank talks about sex and negotiating the conditions under which they’ll see each other naked for the first time. But as their love deepens, the conflict around them becomes more and more perilous; Saeed’s mother is killed by stray gunfire, and Nadia is attacked in the streets, so when they begin to hear talk of doors that appear out of nowhere and lead to safer havens in the West, they realize their best option is escape.
As a fantasist or literary world-builder, Hamid — whose earlier novels include “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” — is no C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling. He spends little time detailing the magical mechanics of these mysterious doors, saying only: “Rumors 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 dispatches with the mythology quickly; he is more interested in involving us in the realism of what Saeed and Nadia find on the other side, which is the opposite of whimsical. The first portal they enter leads to a beach on the Greek Island of Mykonos, where they crowd next to hundreds of other asylum seekers and fight for preciously limited resources. Another door leads to London, and another to San Francisco, and with each new destination come new conflicts, whether they’re dealing with locals who don’t welcome migrants, the struggle to find work, or, perhaps most traumatizing, the daily reminders of what they have left behind, all of which wear away at Saeed and Nadia’s once passionate love. “When we migrate,” Hamid writes, “we murder from our lives those we left behind.”
It’s hardly necessary to point out that Hamid’s novel speaks to the current state of the world, with the roiling, never-ending debates about immigration and refugee crises. “Exit West” doesn’t offer any answers or solutions, but by telling the story of where Saeed and Nadia have been, and adding a touch of fantasy, he imagines where we have yet to go.