In Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West doors begin to appear across the planet connecting countries around the world. Whether the actions of a cheeky God, or the activation of a network of wormholes, Hamid never provides a reason as to why these doors exist. They simply do. For the alt-right supporter or ethno-nationalist, who for sado-masochistic reasons is reading a book by Mohsin Hamid, this premise is a nightmare scenario. How do you defend national borders when a magic door can abruptly appear in someone’s living room? But for those of us who are sympathetic to migrants and especially refugees fleeing violence and persecution, just like our two protagonists Nadia and Saeed, Exit West is a bitter-sweet but ultimately optimistic novel about the inevitability of change.
Initially, Nadia and Saeed don’t want to leave their home. They’ve just met, discovering a commonality in the fact that they are two very different people – Nadia independent and agnostic, Saeed thoughtful and religious. But as their unnamed Middle Eastern country tips into all out civil war they recognise that running away is a matter of survival. Cue those magic doors.
Hamid’s Narnia inspired McGuffins are an agent of change (or chaos for our alt-right readers). For all the recent anti-globalist talk which has less to do with people and more to do with the greedy elite*, Hamid argues that whether we like it or not technology and progress has tied us together. Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation in the 90s that history was done and dusted is dismissed together with whatever purity we associate with our own cultures. There’s no need to worry about Caliphates because as Hamid shows we’ve passed the point where any mono-culture will be able to stand alone.
If that all sounds a bit dry, fear not. Hamid’s writing is lovely and accessible, the relationship between Nadia and Saeed is portrayed with depth and realism and the novel is elevated by these lovely vignettes scattered throughout as people across the world consider and experiment and deal with the doors. The most profound observation in the novel comes from one of these brief side-steps. We are introduced to a woman who has lived her entire life in California and is ruminating about the changing nature of her neighborhood. How once she had known the names of everyone on her street but how over time, as people sold their homes, as people died, as new people moved in she found herself to be a foreigner in her own suburb:
When she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it.
We are all migrants through time.
*AKA the (((greedy elite))).