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Exit West: A Novel

Mohsin Hamid

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 14, 2017
Category: Fiction

I re-read “Exit West” to see if it really is the best serious fiction I’ve read this year. (It is.) Because it’s just been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Because I’ve just read an interview with Mohsin Hamid that is smart, smart, smart. Because I’m half-way through “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia”, a novel in the sly form of a self-help book. [To buy the paperback from Amazon — it’s dramatically cheaper than the Kindle edition, click here.] And then I’m going right on to “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” the novel that first made readers and reviewers cheer. [Again, the book is cheaper than the Kindle. Click to buy it.] Because although I say that I don’t care what you read, I just want you to read, there are some books and some writers that make me say, “Please don’t make me bring this book to your house.” This is one of those writers. This is one of those books.

“Exit West” is short: 230 pages. Just two main characters. A love story, of sorts. Which is to say: original in every sentence. And it couldn’t be more “relevant.” [To read an excerpt, click here. To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For Kindle edition, click here.]

Nadia and Saeed live in a country that’s “swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war.” They’re young professionals, blessedly unaffected by the chaos soon to overtake their lives — their first date is at a Chinese restaurant. Hamid’s gaze is objective to the max:

It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class — in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding — but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.

There are 65 million stateless people in the world today. Why shouldn’t Nadia and Saeed be among them? [Implied question: Why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t you?] Quite soon, it becomes time to leave. When they go, it’s not like those terrifying boat trips across the Mediterranean, with overloaded vessels and incompetent crews and small children washed up, dead, on resort beaches. In a dazzling bit of writing that’s like science fiction, they simply go through doors —“doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this deathtrap of a country.”

That’s all the plot you need to know. More to the point, perhaps, is my experience of reading this book: it changed the way I think. I often quote my Buddhist reading: “The ground is not solid.” I mean that in the sense that I no longer trust the economy or government or any infrastructure, that I feel we’re on our own now, that our only useful resource is the support we get and give to friends and lovers and family. But here the ground is really not solid — the entire planet is restless, searching, literally on the move.

“We are all migrants through time,” Hamid writes.

“Exit West” is easily the best novel — the best serious book, with the most compelling plot and characters — I’ve read this year.