Clever and claustrophobic twist on an urgent topic
Fiction: Exit West, Mohsin Hamid, Hamish Hamilton, hdbk, 240 pages, €17.99
Sameer Rahim enjoys a modern 'refugee novel' that uses a dash of science fiction to ask what if migration were easy.
The literature of exile has an illustrious history. Whether authors have been forced from their homes, like Dante or Solzhenitsyn, or have lived in self-imposed exile like Henry James or James Joyce, the experience of displacement casts fresh light on the societies they left behind, and the ones to which they have moved.
Given the unprecedented movement of peoples at the moment - mainly from the global south to the global north - it was only a matter of time before modern "refugee" novels began to appear.
Mohsin Hamid seems perfectly placed to give this urgent subject a clever twist.
The Pakistani novelist has lived in both America and the UK, and is currently resident in Lahore. He has an adman's canny sense for the issue of the day. His thought-provoking thriller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, followed a Pakistani man caught between the temptations of the West and the lure of home; his most recent novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, used the conceit of the self-help book to chart the rise of a bottled-water billionaire. Both works matched formal experimentation with well-crafted, readable prose.
Hamid's new novel, Exit West, begins realistically but soon takes on the air of a fable - with a dash of science fiction.
Saeed and Nadia live in an unnamed eastern city that is "swollen with refugees" and under threat from unspecified militants, who carry out "shootings" and the "odd car bombing". At an evening class, Saeed notices Nadia's "tawny oval" beauty mark on her neck, and plucks up the courage to approach her. They go on a date to a Chinese restaurant and share their dreams of leaving the troubled city.
This sweetly budding romance is swiftly threatened by war. The city is not exactly Lahore, but is very similar. One of the Pakistan's most liberal and cosmopolitan cities, Lahore was last year the site of a terrorist attack that killed 75 Christians celebrating Easter, and some of Hamid's most powerful passages describe similar violence.
The couple's drug dealer is a pony-tailed guy who might have stepped out of Hamid's first novel, Moth Smoke, set among the dissolute Pakistani upper classes. He ends up beheaded, "his headless body strung up by one ankle from an electricity pylon where it swayed legs akimbo". Saeed's mother is killed by a stray bullet and soon the militants take over the city, banning music and enforcing terror. Our couple decide to leave.
For them there are no difficult visas to obtain nor dangerous sea journeys to undergo. Instead, there are magical black doors, through which anyone can walk and emerge into a new world: for Saeed and Nadia, it is first Mykonos, the Greek island, then London and eventually America. Hamid's black doors are a fictional experiment to see what would happen if travelling from dangerous countries to stable ones were made easy. As he said in a recent interview: "Cold water and warm water want to flow into each other, equalise the temperature. People want to do the same thing."
Naturally, this is a far from painless process.
"When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind," runs one chilling line.
The novel also acknowledges Western fears. "Imagine if you lived here," says Nadia of London. "And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived."
Saeed retorts that millions have already arrived in their country from poorer ones - an allusion to the number of Afghans in Pakistan.
Nadia counters: "That was different. Our country was poor. We didn't feel we had as much to lose."
London becomes a dystopia with "nativists" forming gangs to attack migrants; there are rumours of bloodbaths in Hyde Park. Soon the couple are on the move again, their relationship under further strain.
The novel is impressively claustrophobic and its subject a vital one for our age. At points, Hamid's writing has never been more ambitious nor lyrical. But its dreamlike atmosphere makes the action oddly inert. The qualities that bring novels alive - specificity, unexpectedness, humour - are flattened out by the author's desire to tell a universal fable. For all its many pleasures, Exit West lacks a secure sense of place - which may well be the author's point.