nolead begins By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books. 240 pp. $26 nolead ends
As its title suggests, Mohsin Hamid's
is a story about migration and refugees, focused on a young couple fleeing a brutal civil war in their never-named native country; Hamid's native Pakistan comes to mind, as does Syria.
The first sentence of Hamid's novel gives a clue as to what he'll be doing in the pages to come: "In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her."
Even before the ensuing relationship between Saeed and Nadia begins, Hamid is suggesting it eventually must end; all communication is incomplete and nothing lasts forever, in a world marked by time and haunted by "our eternally impending ending." We're all migrants through time; to insist on permanence is to live in the past.
As their country dies - vividly evoked through images of power outages, dangling corpses, and a culture of fear - Saeed and Nadia fall in love. As their love later stagnates, new possibilities emerge. Often isolated and deprived of basic necessities, they surf a world of luxuries on their phones. Remembering and often missing the past, they begin dreaming a future.
The wall-builders notwithstanding, Hamid suggests that space is as fluid as time; hence the intriguing interludes, inserted at various points in the Saeed and Nadia story, during which we pay brief visits to people in Australia, Japan, California, Austria, and Morocco. Each of these vignettes is a meditation on migration and immigration.
Meanwhile, Saeed and Nadia make their way west. The farther they get from home, the more nostalgic he becomes; his efforts to reconcile where he is with who he once was recalls Hamid's breakthrough novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
But for all its sadness, Exit West is a hopeful book. Hamid doesn't avoid or sugarcoat the heartache and hurt accompanying contradiction and change, as people "all over the world were slipping away from where they had been." But he also has the courage to accept mortality as inevitable and see to change as an opportunity.
Hamid chronicles exits and endings, admitting that "when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind." But he also describes entrances and beginnings, into a West of hope and opportunity, of the sort awaiting all of us - once we summon the courage to move.
This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.