One of this year’s most controversial Super Bowl ads came from building supplies company 84 Lumber’s, featuring a mother and daughter’s difficult journey migrating from Mexico to the United States. The full version, which was deemed too controversial to air, revealed the duo arriving at the border to the U.S. where they were met by a wall. After the devastation sinks in, there is a glimmer of hope—there is a door, and the mother and child can enter the country.
Migration through doors is explored in Mohsin Hamid’s new novel Exit West. The story opens in an unnamed city somewhere in Southeast Asia. The city is fraught with political unrest as our main characters, Saeed and Nadia, meet. Nadia wears a black robe, presumably an abaya—not for religious reasons, but as she explains to Saeed, “so men don’t fuck with me.” At times this strategy works. Other times, Nadia’s robe is met with ire, and she is assaulted.
Violence is a typical part of the city’s landscape as the country faces a probable civil war. A backdrop of bombs and extreme turmoil is the stage on which Saeed and Nadia fall in love, and this climate narrates their love affair. The pace of their relationship is accelerated because of the dire situation in which they find themselves before they each have the opportunity to sort out their feelings:
Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what exactly she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions, and furthermore the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one’s appreciation of food.
As threats around them escalate, Nadia and Saeed hear whispers about doors. The novel then veers into magical realism as the doors are vehicles to transport people to other countries:
Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all. Most people thought these rumors to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.
Nadia and Saeed find a door and are able to escape, unaware of the devastating consequences awaiting them. Similar to in his earlier novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid doesn’t fill in every crack for the reader, so there is room to imagine. Reading Hamid is like receiving a coloring book containing breathtaking vibrant pictures with no lines to contain the images. Again he wrote a novel slim in size—yet deceptively expansive.
As immigration debates ensue with Trump’s threat to build a wall along the border to Mexico, Exit West is timely. Hamid’s meditation on migration is beautiful and heartbreaking. Migration is a central theme to the novel, but its examination is broad, and the execution is more metaphorical than other recent books dealing with immigration. Nadia and Saeed migrate through doors rather than crossing physical borders, adding a surreal feel to the novel and combining magical realism in a smart and political novel. Although their journey is easier than the mother and daughter in the Super Bowl ad, Nadia and Saeed’s migration is not without challenges.
In the end the journey is not the focus; it is the consequences of such movement that matter. At its core, Exit West is a poignant study of an exodus from one’s country, while also offering an empathetic portrait of migration. It’s a beautiful reminder that “We are all migrants through time.” We all migrate through space and time—some people just move farther away.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Published March 7, 2017
Mohsin Hamid is the author of Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Discontent and its Civilizations. His award-winning novels have been adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and translated into more than thirty languages.
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Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, Fiction Writers Review, Nurture, Entropy, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.