Mohsin Hamid's fourth novel, Exit West, is superbly written and filled with surprises. The biggest is Hamid's tone of insistent optimism. The novel concerns mass migration from places in the South or East blasted by unstable and volatile politics or environmental decay to places of seeming stability in the West. His protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, who meet and fall in love in an unnamed Asian city not unlike Lahore, Pakistan where Hamid was born, and now resides, make the excruciating decision to migrate. Their journey leads from Greece to London, and finally to Marin County in California. This is not a book of arduous journeys across great distances. Hamid focuses on the circumstances leading to the decision to go, and the new life upon arrival. One of the book's many wonders is his creation of mysterious "black doors" which are discovered in odd places in these desolate cities. Find one and venture through it, and you are instantly in another place.
Hamid presents Nadia and Saeed with compassion and understanding. Theirs is a small story which keeps expanding to encompass all the world. Novel by novel Hamid's generosity toward his characters has grown. His last book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, in the guise of a self-help manual tells of two people ("the man" and "the pretty girl") who start life with nothing and claw and force their way to respectability and comfort. The book encompasses the long arc of both lives in only 200 pages. The final scene has the man in a hospital, dying, and he is visited by the ghost of the "pretty girl". Here is how it ends
She is here. And she comes to you, and she does not speak, and the others do not notice her, and she takes your hand, and you ready yourself to die, eyes open, aware this is all an illusion, a last aroma cast up by the chemical stew that is your brain, which will soon cease to function, and there will be nothing, and you are ready, ready to die well, ready to die like a man, like a woman, like a human, for despite all else you have loved, you have loved your father and your mother and your brother and your sister and your son and, yes, your ex-wife, and you have loved the pretty girl, you have been beyond yourself, and so you have courage, and you have dignity, and you have calmness in the face of terror, and awe, and the pretty girl holds your hand, and you contain her, and this book, and me writing it, and I too contain you, who may not yet even be born, you inside me inside you, though not in a creepy way, and so may you, may I, may we, so may all of us confront the end.
It takes away your breath. It is a remarkably tender and magical way to conclude, and it opened Hamid's heart to a new path in his writing, a path which lead to Exit West.
In a recent interview Hamid said,
I understand that people are afraid of migrants. If you are in a wealthy country,it's understandable that you might fear the arrival of lots of people from far away. But that fear is like racism: it's understandable, but it needs to be countered, diminished, resisted. People are going to move in vast numbers in the coming decades and centuries. Sea levels will rise, weather patterns will change, and billions will move. We need to figure out how to build a vision for this coming reality that isn't a disaster, that is humane and even inspiring.
While Exit West does not presume to build this vision, it does, through its humane storytelling, begin to mitigate our fears of the other. Hamid's optimism and resilience provide hope and a sense of shared responsibility in this too quickly changing world. This is a beautiful and moving book. Read it, and then pass it to a friend.