Last time around, reviewing Hamid’s second novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, we said:
“Hamid is not a writer who you could describe as realistic, even as he is engaging with a very real world. His characters are largely cyphers. The words he has chosen keep you reading, because he is a writer able to fashion a swishy sentence (the majority of which work very hard, in a sort of Amis like fashion), but there is a sense in which Hamid is skating upon the knowledge he has built up through experience…”
Reading Exit West, all of the above is still true but we’ve wholly changed our view. We think we reviewed How to Get Filthy Rich… wanting Hamid to be a Tolstoy when he’s more of a Murakami. By which we mean to say Hamid doesn’t waste too many words on extraneous detail. He tells you what you need to know and you go with it and there’s a measure of urgency both to the writing and the reading. Exit West is a book that requires a measure of urgency, given that it is a book, in some senses, about the refugee experience.
Opening “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”, Exit West concerns Saeed and Nadia, who meet at a class on corporate branding (and ‘It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class… but that is the way of things, with cities as with life’). He admires a beauty mark on her neck and struggles to reconcile the fact that she is dressed ‘from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe’ and rides a ‘scuffed up hundred-ish cc trail bike’. Nadia, for her part, finds Saeed ‘a strange sort of man. A strange and attractive sort of man’, thanks to his habit of smiling, his dreams of visiting the Atacama Desert to watch the stars and his willingness to roll and share a spliff with her. The ‘several moments of questioning whether she had done the right thing’ define her as much as their eventual coupledom.
Of course, a city not openly at war gradually comes to be more explicitly at war and horror intrudes, in the form of a football match watched by Saeed’s father in which a head is used in place of a ball, in the form of eighty-five people blown to pieces (‘literally to bits’) by a truck bomb, in the form of a ponytailed man ‘beheaded, nape-first, with a serrated knife’, in the form of drones and bombs and disappearances, in the form of ‘helicopters fill[ing] the sky like birds startled by gunshot’. Saeed’s mother is killed whilst retrieving an earring from her car and Saeed and Nadia come to realise their future is elsewhere. And it is here that we are introduced to the idea of doors, portals that will take you elsewhere on the globe (and we understand what all of the vignettes we have been reading, the stories of others, appearing and disappearing mysteriously, have been about), magical exits that make perfect sense despite their otherworldliness in this story of our world and our time.
Saeed and Nadia get money together (because nothing comes for free and doors, for the most part, are owned and guarded either by those looking to make money or those looking to prevent people passing) and leave (an experience ‘that was both like dying and like being born’), first to Mykonos and then to Germany, Britain and San Francisco. In each place, we are gifted with a different view of the contemporary refugee experience – from ‘a refugee camp with hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colours and hues’ to a claustrophobic squat. Refracted via both Patrick Kingsley’s The New Odyssey and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees, Hamid’s book acquires a powerful resonance. ‘In this group, everyone was foreign,’ Hamid writes, ‘and so, in a sense, no one was.’
Later, in London, we see riots and talk on the television of
‘a major operation, one city at a time, starting in London, to reclaim Britain for Britain, and it was reported the army was being deployed, and the police as well, and those who had once served in the army and the police, and volunteers who had received a weeklong course of training.’
Which would be funny if it wasn’t. Saeed and Nadia react to the growing tension about them
‘not with bravery, exactly, and not with panic either, not mostly, but instead with a resignation shot through with moments of tension, with tension ebbing and flowing, and when the tension receded there was calm, the calm that is called the calm before the storm…’
And in amidst the quiet push and pull of two people attempting to be together, in amidst the daily fraught insinuations and politics (in which one day Saeed and one day Nadia might feel more ‘at home’ than at other times), there is also the world about them and Hamid does a great job of bringing our frightening reality to bear:
‘The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart.’
There are other doors and other places and other influences brought to bear and what we have here, with Exit West, is a powerful piece of work, a novel doing exactly what a novel should, holding up a mirror to reveal unpleasant reflections in a lucid and compelling way. But even as the book is both specific and current, it is also broader and more timeless too. We said that Exit West was a book in some senses about the refugee experience; it’s also a love story, a temporary love story (is there any other kind?), of a love that flares and founders and goes on by its sell-by date to a point where people, if they’re looking, can spy a kind of wisdom. This is not a tale of one and onlys. This is, instead, a tale of people who were together for a time – but what a time, Hamid seems to be saying in his dreamlike way.
Any Cop?: This is the kind of book that makes you look at other books and find them wanting. The world is such a mess every writer should be attempting to engage with it, to explain it, to try and help us make it right, or better at least. Hamid is bold and Exit West is brave. More of this kind of thing, please.