Booker Shortlist Reading Guide

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid.
Mohsin Hamid.PHOTO: KASHI

Who: Pakistani Mohsin Hamid, 46, came close to winning the Booker in 2007 with his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Exit West, his fourth novel, draws in part on his own experience as a migrant who has shuttled between Pakistan, the United States and Britain for much of his life.

In an unnamed country on the brink of civil war, an odd relationship slowly blossoms between sweet-natured Saeed, an advertising agency employee living with his doting parents, and Nadia, who lives alone, rides a motorcycle and, despite swathing herself in long black robes, does not pray.

Their love story plays out against a bleak backdrop of mounting violence between government and rebel forces, as bombings and shootings grow more rampant and society dissolves into chaos and paranoia.

Saeed and Nadia soon start looking for a way out of the country, after hearing rumours of magical doors that can transport people to distant lands.

These mysterious portals - which the authorities are racing to discover and block off - remove much of the drama of the protagonists' flight west, away from a war-torn homeland; there are no long, arduous journeys across land and sea here.

But Mohsin Hamid spins a sobering tale anyway, not of the physical obstacles that dog refugees on their search for safety, but of the psychology of refugees once they succeed in their bid for freedom.

  • EXIT WEST

  • Riverhead Books/ Paperback/ 240 pages/ $29.91/Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

In leaving their homes behind to survive and rebuild their lives, they have condemned themselves to exile in unfamiliar countries where locals are organising riots to protest against the influx of immigrants.

Saeed and Nadia have fled a home being dissolved by war, but arrive again and again in societies being torn apart by hatred and prejudice.

As they live in foreign lands, their understanding of religion, nationhood and identity diverges.

They can no longer reconcile their beliefs and gently, quietly drift apart.

Unfortunately, this means the novel stutters to a weak close that some may find unfulfilling.

Still, Exit West - Hamid's first novel in four years - is a poignant take on the refugee crisis, coming amid a tide of rising xenophobia.

While the book ends with the disintegration of a young migrant couple's dream of starting a new life together, it also closes on a note of hope.

Saeed and Nadia must go on their separate paths, but they have survived. And the societies that at first reacted with violence against them and their ilk soon realise that they are here to stay.

In this new balance being forged, Saeed and Nadia manage to carve out spaces for themselves.

At the end, the message is acceptance - something the world could do well to remember these days.

If you like this, read: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier (Vintage, 2012, $17.95, Books Kinokuniya), which follows a group of Polish children who flee to Switzerland during World War II to reunite with their parents.

•A version of this review first ran in Life on May 16.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Exit West by Mohsin Hamid'. Print Edition | Subscribe