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Exit West by Mohsin HamidUK edition coverFour stars
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Sometimes, speculative fiction speculates, imagining any number of possible futures from an “if this goes on” perspective. But other times, it allows us a slightly skewed outlook on our present. What if things were just a bit different today than they currently are? How would our lives be different? Would we be better off, or worse, or would we just muddle along as we usually do and end up more or less the same?

In Exit West, the Man Booker-shortlisted novel by Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), two young people, Saeed and Nadia, meet in their hometown, a city and a country which are never named because we can fill in those blanks for ourselves. He’s shy, and she’s a bit bolder, and they meet the way many young people meet, with an initial chance encounter where there might be some sparks, followed by quite a lot of texting, followed by some tentative dates where they hang out at her place and enjoy drinks and vinyl records and a little weed.

Nadia is quite the more confident of the pair. It’s unusual for her even to have an apartment of her own in their city and its culture. Saeed still lives at home, after all, with his parents. They both have perfectly routine office jobs. Saeed is religious while Nadia is secular, but she still chooses to wear a burqa in public “so that men won’t fuck with me.”

But there is war brewing in their city, between the government and a vicious band of fundamentalist insurgents, and it all comes to a boil so swiftly no one has time to absorb the disruption to their daily lives. Bombs go off, the power goes out. Cell phone service comes to a complete halt. Local businesses, including both Nadia’s and Saeed’s workplaces, shut down. Checkpoints and curfews and random house searches — not to mention stray bullets — turn anything like normal life completely upside down.

And as escape from the country becomes both necessary and practically impossible, a new hope emerges with rumors of secret doors that appear, out of nowhere, throughout the city, inexplicably, each of them leading to distant countries. As most of the known doors quickly become occupied and guarded by either insurgent or government forces, Nadia and Saeed do manage to escape through one. And thus begins the journey of the rest of their lives, navigating a world in which the traditional notion of borders has been erased, trying to make a place for themselves in nations that are in turn trying to figure out what their role as nations is going to be in this remapped world.

Hamid keeps the novel short and sweet, with prose that feels informal and conversational but also vivid and lyrical. Yet Exit West covers so much narrative and thematic ground. The story is undeniably a political one, and though it’s definitely more globalist than nationalist in its outlook, Hamid avoids didacticism, and just lets events unfold.

The doors are good for some people (like one suicidal London accountant who steps through one into Namibia and ends up building a new life for himself) and bad for others, and the instantaneous displacement and replacement of millions of people all around the globe — because it isn’t just in our couple’s city where this phenomenon is happening — causes unavoidable problems. Hamid simply presents us with Saeed and Nadia’s experiences and lets us observe how it all affects them as individuals, not as symbolic figures meant to represent all refugees. We’re left with the understanding that some things in life you can control while others require you to roll with the punches. The book is a love story that manages to be quite moving without being the least bit sentimental, and what becomes of Saeed and Nadia and their bond may not be the ending that anyone deeply invested in the notion of star-crossed romance might wish for. But it does leave them in a happy place, learning to adapt and build a future for themselves even though they go through years of considerable hardship to get there.

Probably the hardest thing to do, especially for anyone who’s a refugee, is find a light at the end of the tunnel. But the ultimate optimism of Exit West is that, collectively, we can find it, though not all of us will personally. Too many paranoid, violent, tribalistic ideologies all over the world are making an extra effort to keep that tunnel as dark as it can be, and fixing that, if it can even be fixed, will require the effort of decades. The human race can have a future, and can even thrive, but first we’ve got to stop dropping bombs and building walls, and start opening doors.