Saeed and Nadia, the two central characters in Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, meet at the beginning of the book, at a night class on “corporate identity and product branding.” He invites her for coffee in the cafeteria. They trade instant messages at work, and go for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. That the banality of their courtship plays out as their country is lurching toward civil war is deliberate: Exit West is a story about how familiar and persistent human existence is, even at the edge of dystopia. But it’s also a warning against the assumption that the end of the world will leave rich, western countries unscathed.
In that, Hamid’s novel is both timely—a tale about refugees playing out against a global migrant crisis—and impossibly prescient. When it comes to the future, he posits, we will all be migrants, whether we hop from country to country or stay in one place until the day we die. Either way, the world can become unrecognizable in the blink of an eye. What makes Exit West so striking is the ways in which it maps the breakdown of a society, and how effortlessly the cycle begins to repeat itself even when Saeed and Nadia think they’ve made it to safety.
At the novel’s opening, the two live in “a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war,” in a country left deliberately ambiguous—it could be Pakistan, Hamid’s home country, but also Syria, or Libya or any number of others. Saeed works for a company that places outdoor advertisements; Nadia sells insurance. They’re both attached to their smartphones. As is normal for educated, unmarried men in his country, Saeed lives with his parents. Less typical is that Nadia lives alone and rides a motorcycle, and though she isn’t remotely devout, she wears long black robes as a measure of protection. “So,” as she tells Saeed, “men don’t fuck with me.”