At last, a novel that I think will definitely be on the shortlist. Early days, of course, but I feel confident. Exit West is the fourth novel by Mohsin Hamid. His debut novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was also a Man Booker shortlisted title.
Exit West is somewhat different from his previous writing in that it contains a degree of magic realism, while at the same time is also a novel very much of our own times – displacement through war and global changes being very much part of the narrative.
Two young people, Nadia and Saeed meet and gradually become close friends. Nadia is more adventurous, but Saeed is restrained by a sense of what is proper, and what is respectable.
The city that they live in, unnamed and in an unnamed but clearly largely Muslim country, is gradually taken over by militants, first only a few areas and then finally the whole city; curfews are enforced and moving from the house where Saeed lives with his parents to the apartment where Nadia lives on her own becomes more fraught with danger. It is not until Saeed’s mother is caught in a fatal burst of crossfire, that Nadia consents, finally, to move in with Saeed.
There a rumours of ways, specifically doorways, through which escape can be made. Through an agent, Saeed makes provision for them all to move on, but in the end Saeed’s father prefers to stay at home, near to where his beloved wife is buried.
And this is where the magic realism breaks in. We know nothing of the journey, they are transported (or teleported) straight from a dental surgery to a beach on an island that they later learn in Mykonos…
The trajectory of the narrative covers their journey, or journeys. As they move from place to place, each time simply through a new door; as they grow in intimacy and out of it again; as they grow in experience of each other, through each other and through the circumstances in which they find themselves and finally into old age…
Each move brings them out of danger or hardship into a new place with different but also threatening aspects, they settle there until the situation becomes untenable or their interest is piqued by hearing of another place, better, safer, more desirable than where they are now and all they have to do is find the right door…
There is an epic quality about this quite short novel. Because it has a sense of timelessness within it, migration being something that we can see around us, experience for ourselves in a voluntary fashion and feel for ourselves as more and more foreigners appear on our streets.
Does the magic realism detract from the narrative? Do we need harrowing descriptions of over-crowded, leaky boats; barbed wire fences and long treks through unwelcoming territory to understand what Nadia and Saeed are going through? I think not.
This is a profoundly intense emotional and physical journey that we travel on alongside our two protagonists, and sometimes in a parallel setting learn of other people who are, just at one and the same time undergoing a quite different experience.
I have loved all Mohsin Hamid’s books and this is no exception, this is a novel I would have bought regardless of its position on any prize list.