Mohsin Hamid made his first appearance on the Booker shortlist ten years ago with “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” in a year when Anne Enright took the prize.
“Exit West” is a slim, sparse novel with big themes which centres on a love affair amidst turmoil and conflict. Hamid can be precise in his vagueness and we never learn for sure the country of Nadia and Saeed’s birth but it is, like many others, a nation of escalating conflict.
They meet at an evening class but their freedoms and opportunities become increasingly diminished as militants take over. Nadia wears dark robes to cover herself fully as a way of distancing male interest but is actually far less religious and traditional as Saeed who prays regularly and cannot contemplate sex before marriage. The situation in their homeland worsens and they hear of a fantastical means of escape. Here I could certainly see parallels with “The Underground Railroad” both with its forced migration and the means to achieve this. Whereas Whitehead is masterful in drawing us into his tale Hamid keeps us purposely at a distance with a detached documentary style which actually makes some of the terrible events seem even more terrible.
Whereas Colson Whitehead’s book really took off from the escape onwards I felt that this novel reached its peak before the escape and that the attempts to relocate in a London which is becoming increasingly as tense as their homeland and then to the USA didn’t captivate me as much. Like Whitehead these locations feel highly fictionalised and have a nightmarish quality which is magnified by the pared down nature of Hamid’s writing.
Like a number of the Booker shortlist novels there were moments that were absolutely first class but although I can see its relevance and importance to our modern world I wasn’t totally enraptured throughout.
Exit West was published as a Hamish Hamilton hardback in March 2017