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Mohsin Hamid’s refugee tale ‘Exit West’ travels from fable to realism and back

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Heather Scott Partington

Four stars

Exit West By Mohsin Hamid, $26.

"In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not openly at war, a young man met a young woman …” So begins Mohsin Hamid’s timely novel of refugees and magical realism, Exit West. Saeed and Nadia live in a nameless Middle Eastern city. Though Nadia dresses in a conservative robe from chin to toe, she does this so men will leave her alone; she is also the more liberal of the young lovers. The couple spend all of their time together until it is no longer safe to do so. Their family members are dying, and their favorite haunts are shuttered. Eventually they hear that doors are opening to other cities around the world, and they escape. Hamid masterfully juxtaposes the unexpected and the ordinary to both complicate the lovers’ tale and offer an important critique of current refugee crises.

The tone of Exit West is one of gritty realism, but Hamid narrates it in third person, evoking fables of the past; he offers peeks into various doors and lives around the world. “But the nearby blackness unsettled him,” he writes, “and reminded him of something, of a feeling, of a feeling he associated with children’s books … [He] thought he might step through the door, just once, to see what was on the other side …” Hamid’s doors are literal portals to other countries, opportunities to leave war-torn lands and pursue safety, but they work in the context of the novel. Hamid asks us to reconsider the everyday magic we already accept: things like modern travel, cell phones, the instantaneous reporting of news.

Hamid uses several recurring motifs: The night sky, the plurality of languages and the shame of refugees are refrains woven artfully into this tale about the difficulties of sustaining a relationship through trauma. There’s a decidedly absurdist overtone to Exit West, as in some ways the lovers (and others) seem to be filling their time, waiting for something they have yet to discover. When Saeed and Nadia consider doors—the binary choices to travel to Mykonos, then London, then Marin, California—they are also making choices within themselves and about their future together. Hamid’s apposition of the magic and the pedestrian forces his reader to think differently about refugees and the idea of leaving an entire country or life behind. In Exit West, we see how “[we] are all migrants through time.”

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