Exit West

It’s March 2018. Migration is a hot topic as we enter into the final 12 month period before the UK leaves the European Union. Whichever way the UK succeeds or fails to control the number of migrants entering this country, global migration seems set to become a major phenomenon. It looks likely that millions of people are going to seek escape from war, famine, persecution or simply seek out a better economic future.


In this piece of fiction by Mohsin Hamid (http://www.mohsinhamid.com/about.html) we are taken into a world in which just one component of reality has been tweaked. Everywhere, mysterious doorways have appeared — in bedrooms, gardens, back alleys — that can transport you to a different part of the globe. The narrative opens with Nadia and Saeed, a young couple in ‘a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war’. The portals that allow entry from poor to rich nations are heavily guarded, but they appear suddenly and unpredictably. So there are shortlived opportunities to pass instantaneously from, say, Sri Lanka to Dubai, or Manila to Tokyo, or Rio to Amsterdam.


Sketches of half-imagined figures making these surreal and sudden transitions adorn the main plot like narrative curlicues. The book is part pared-down romance, part 21st-century fable for a world of porous borders and new forms of connectivity. Exit West opens with a city sliding into civil war. Nadia and Saeed dodge curfews and checkpoints to meet in a Chinese restaurant, or end the day smoking joints on the roof of her flat. The city’s ‘freewheeling virtual world’ is set against a daily life that is steadily being locked down, until even the internet signal is cut and characters are marooned in their homes. Car bombings are ‘felt in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration’, like the bass at rock concerts. One day Nadia’s dealer is strung up from a pylon with his throat slit.


The couple leave through one of the wormholes, but what follows is not an idealised story of love in the time of adversity. We are given two young people thrown together by circumstances before they have become themselves and whose fraying relationship must endure the tedium, cramped conditions and anxieties of living in unfamiliar places. First there is a tented camp in Mykonos, then a squatted mansion in London, and finally a makeshift town near San Francisco. Unlike many press reports on the migrant crisis, the narrative does not fetishise the journey but focuses instead on the destination, and what might happen next. That is going to be a world torn between failing globalisation and resurgent forms of nationalism, whether Trumpian, Brexitite, or Putinesque.


Hamid manages to evade both utopian and dystopian visions in this futuristic picture of what global migration could bring about. Something like this is going to be your children’s future, so it could be worth the imaginative exercise. Check if this thought provoking new fiction is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH



240 pages in Hamish Hamilton

First published 2017

ISBN  978-0241290088


Mohsin Hamid

Scroll to Top