Trap doors, sliding walls, secret tunnels.
The tricks of Agatha Christie’s trade have seeped into some of our most acclaimed fiction, as we saw last year with Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and its portals to subterranean train stations.
Now comes Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West,” a similar feat of invention and language, which depicts a courageous young couple as they flee their war-scalded Middle Eastern city through a series of doors that magically whisk them away, from Mykonos to London to California. The odyssey exposes them to fierce xenophobia even as it ensures their safety.
Saeed and Nadia meet in a university class in an unnamed country where militants swarm through neighborhoods, setting off bombs and gunning down civilians. Each day Saeed grapples with his own mortality: “He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough.” They kindle a relationship that’s an uneasy hybrid of erotic and platonic.
Despite the mayhem around them, the rationing of food and electricity, they hear rumors of doors that swing onto different parts of the world. For a fee, a black-market agent directs them out of chaos:
“It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia … felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat.”
In gossamer-fine sentences, “Exit West” weaves a pulse-raising tale of menace and romance, a parable of our refugee crisis, and a poignant vignette of love won and lost. Hamid’s imagery is gorgeous, his sentences unfurling languidly.
Nadia and Saeed get caught in the surge of vagrants headed from east to west, from south to north; and yet as the global crisis escalates, Hamid portrays his characters’ plight with an aching beauty, particularly when they decide to part.
In a light yet vibrant coda, he flashes forward 50 years to Nadia and Saeed’s reunion in a cafe in their home city, now revitalized: “Above them bright satellites transited in the darkening sky and the last hawks were returning to the rests of their nests and around them passersby did not pause to look at this old woman in her black robe or this old man with his stubble.”
There are many indelible moments like this one throughout “Exit West.” Let the word go forth: Hamid has written his most lyrical and piercing novel yet, destined to be one of this year’s landmark achievements.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing,” and a former finalist for a National Magazine Award. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Mohsin Hamid.
Publisher: Riverhead, 231 pages, $26.