Books Reviews

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

by Nilopar Uddin

A damp evening in Manchester’s Dean Street, and Waterstones is brimming with eager faces. Speaking to the women sitting around me, I realise that Mohsin Hamid is something of a rockstar literati; this room is packed with fans who exhibit the effervescent excitement of groupies.

Hamid, whose writings has been variously described as “the literature of disenchantment” and “international modernity”, chooses to read an extract, which describes the love story of a protagonist’s parents. The narrative is characterised by a wistful nostalgia for a bygone age, a bygone place, and a bygone youth. Even the inception of Exit West has the whiff of nostalgia about it. When the author describes how reading The Chronicles of Narnia as a child may have inspired his latest novel, the audience groan with approval; for who can resist the wardrobe portal to C.S Lewis’ fantastical world. I still remember the feel of my mother’s kathan silks brushing my forehead as I read with a torch in the safe darkness of her wardrobe. We are all, as Hamid says, refugees from our childhood. We are brimming with nostalgia for it.

On the train from London to Manchester I had ample time to bask in my own nostalgia of the past and to revisit my relationship with Hamid’s books. I first discovered him across the Atlantic, when I spotted a copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist in the Barnes and Noble store in Manhattan. It was 2006, and the book had been out for while, but I had been so busy in my career as a finance lawyer, I hadn’t had the time to read fiction. I stood at the display table and began to read. After some time, my legs began to ache, so I bought the novel and rode the escalator to the café on the first floor, my nose still buried in the book. I didn’t leave the store until I was finished, and when I did, I felt joyous; the same pleasure one feels after a therapeutic adda session with a good friend. I would credit Hamid with re-kindling my love of diaspora literature. From Lahiri to Adichi to Aw; such literature is an affirmation for me – that others like me exist, that others like me have beautiful stories to tell.

I read Hamid’s debut Moth Smoke many years later. I had just given birth to my second child and had resigned from my job to make time for the children and indulge in my writing. Darashikoh’s experiences absorbed me, comforted me with reminiscences of my own time on the subcontinent (for parts of Moth Smoke could have been set in Dhaka). My husband bought me a copy of How to be Filthy Rich in Rising Asia as soon as it was published and I devoured it in a matter of days, as did he.

Recently, I have just finished reading Hamid’s collection of essays – Discontent and its Civilisations, and it occurs to me that my love for his books is due to his uncanny ability to place his nib on the pulse of the zeitgeist whilst simultaneously airing the issues that are important to a growing breed of diaspora who have been fortunate enough to travel by design rather than to escape threat (using Hamid’s own metaphor, a people who are drifting water lilies). Even Exit West, which has been in the making for several years, has somehow foreseen the events of the last few years. Migrants have become undesirable. The ideas of nativism and purity threaten the existence of mongrels (as the writer described himself) such as us. The book does away with the idea of nativism. It is a thought experiment; an encouragement to the world to put aside its fears of migrants (which Hamid attests is a fear of being reminded of the things and places we lose by leaving) and to open its arms to the right of unhindered movement of peoples.

Exit West is a departure for Hamid in many ways: firstly, it moves away from his much beloved second person narrative and uses the liberty afforded by the omniscient narrator to hark back to the traditional storytelling voice which enables Hamid to exactly what he wants. Secondly, where his previous books have been realist, Exit West is based on the magical premise of doorways that lead to other parts of the world. It seems to be a culmination of the writer’s own fantasies, for Hamid has previously written of his loathing of the treatment meted out by US customs officials to immigrants, and in this novel he has recreated the wardrobe portals of Narnia, opening up a world where borders have become obsolete. Hamid maintains that these portals to some extent already exist: TV, phone, plane, and the magical doorways are a natural, imaginative leap. At a time when the world has begun to reach out to Orwellian literature in order to understand the ‘Black Swan’ events of Brexit and Trump, we inhabit a juncture where fact can be stranger than fiction. Hamid’s thought experiment isn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility.

Nilopar Uddin grew up in a tiny border town between England and Wales. After studying Law at Warwick, she practised in London and New York, and now lives in London with her husband and two daughters. Nilopar has just completed her MA in Creative Writing at City University and is working on her first novel.

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