‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid

exit westIn an un-named city swollen by refugees somewhere in the Middle East, Saeed and Nadia meet at an evening class. But not everything is at it seems – it takes Saeed a few lessons to pluck up the courage to speak to the young woman dressed in flowing black robes, only to discover she drives a motorbike, lives alone, smokes dope and is wedded to the phone and internet.

Their evolving love story is fraught with dangers as religious militants take control of various neighbourhoods in the city and executions for minor infringements of religious law are not uncommon. But as the violence and dangers escalate, so rumours abound of doorways randomly appearing throughout the city: to exit through a door is the path to a new life somewhere else in the world.

Exit West is addictive reading. Inevitably, there is a sense of familiarity as more and more displaced persons, via garden sheds, bedrooms, toilet cubicles, emerge all over the world. But Hamid’s world is set in an imagined near future. It is the story of the plight of refugees. But this is not the grim tale of terrifying, interminable journeys across borders or families holed up in tiny spaces as war explodes around them. Instead, as Saeed and Nadia travel through the portal, their experience is both like dying and like being born as they step into an alien and uncertain future. It’s not what they expect and they face both danger and joy.

What follows is a profoundly moving personal story of love, courage and, most of all, loyalty as the two face and confront the displacement of certainty and equilibrium around them.

But, whilst addictive, Exit West ultimately falls short of being fully satisfactory. The relevance of the novel’s first third and the beautifully written exposition of life in the un-named city as life becomes more and more untenable (electricity blackouts, random home searches by both militants and government forces, executions) loses out to a somewhat pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative.

Salient, engrossing, at times quite magical but also somewhat odd – the portals through which individuals place travel are never explained, a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, Exit West lost out to George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

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‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid

Reluctant-FundamentalistA rooftop café in Lahore overlooking the bazaar, drinking tea. Western-educated Changez talks to an unnamed American, telling him of his life story – a scholarship to Princeton, top of his class, snapped up by an elite global valuation firm. There appear to be no limits for the young, good-looking Pakistani. He thrives on the pressures of expectation and a potential relationship with the beautiful Erica promises the opening of doors into Manhattan society.

But in the aftermath of September 11, Changez’s world exponentially changes – and so does he. His relationship with the mentally unbalanced Erica shifts, his relationship with his work colleagues and his beloved America shifts, his relationship with his family shifts. And, ultimately, his relationship with himself radically shifts.

Talking to the stranger (The Reluctant Fundamentalist is, in reality, a monologue), Changez voices slow but certain changes in his attitude, initially as a direct response to the changed attitudes towards him. Like the slow reveal of his story as dusk settles over the city and the undercurrent of threat pervades the night air (just who is the unnamed American?), Changez’s disillusionment came about in a nuanced, progressive manner.

Now an enemy of his adopted country, there’s no political or religious grandising. That the story is a political allegory of the conflict of the two cultures and the iniquity of power and status, there’s no doubt. The secular Changez is the voice of moderation, a fundamentalist in the most fundamental way. But he is also looking for his own identity – he is a Pakistani angry with his country’s reliance on the US but also angry with Pakistani global politics.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an extraordinary achievement – a highly personal story yet infused with complex issues of nationhood, capitalism, elitism. Published in 2007, it is as topical today as then. Shortlisted for the Man Booker, it lost out (somewhat surprisingly, selected as it was by The Guardian as one of the books that defined the decade) to Anne Enright’s The Gathering.