Reviews — From the April 2017 issue

Door to Door

Mohsin Hamid’s displaced persons

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Discussed in this essay:

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books. 240 pages. $26.

Early in Mohsin Hamid’s remarkable new novel, Exit West, a young couple fall in love in an unnamed city where war is about to break out. The streets and parks are crowded with stunned and dying refugees, but so far the unrest has been limited to “some shootings and the odd car bombing, felt in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration like those emitted by large loudspeakers at music concerts.” Despite the distant crackle of gunfire, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in an evening class on corporate branding, do what humans so often do in such circumstances: they act as though they have all the time in the world.

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.

Saeed, an employee of a billboard-advertising company, has been trying to design a campaign for a soap company. Having liberated herself, at great emotional cost, from her traditional family, Nadia lives alone in a rented apartment, works for an insurance company, rides a motorcycle, and wears a full-length black robe not as a sign of religious devotion but as a way of dealing with “aggressive men and with the police, and with aggressive men who were the police.” She is far less religious than Saeed, we learn in their first after-class conversation, a difference that will become divisive as the novel progresses.

Over the course of a few weeks, Saeed and Nadia flirt, have dinner, smoke weed, take psychedelic mushrooms. Early on, he suggests they abstain from sex until they are married. She is intrigued by her attractive classmate but determined to preserve her hard-won independence. The tentative advances and inevitable stallings of their courtship might seem more familiar and less urgent if we weren’t so regularly reminded of how doomed their world is.

Our awareness of that doom is intensified by an authorial voice that is simultaneously ironic and elegiac, as Hamid contrasts the relative placidity of his characters’ lives with monitory glimpses of the hell into which they are about to descend. The view from the comfortable apartment that Saeed shares with his parents, for example,

might command a slight premium during gentler, more prosperous times, but would be most undesirable in times of conflict, when it would be squarely in the path of heavy machine-gun and rocket fire as fighters advanced into this part of town. . . . ,, . Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.

The historians prove to be the more prescient. As the worsening conflict between the government and the fundamentalist rebels makes it increasingly dangerous for the couple to meet, Saeed invites Nadia to move in (and live chastely) with him and his parents. Nadia hesitates, until the matter is decided for her; the risks she faces living alone — frightened by the sound of explosions, she barricades her door with a sofa — have become too great, and she worries about Saeed, traveling back and forth to see her.

Even though Hamid has warned us about what is about to occur, it still comes as a shock to the reader — as it does to Saeed and Nadia — when the city turns into a war zone. Or perhaps what’s startling is how quickly a modern society can be reduced to almost medieval chaos. Firefights erupt in disputed neighborhoods. Nadia’s cousin is blown “literally to bits” by a truck bomb. The ponytailed entrepreneur who sold her the shrooms is beheaded “with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort.” The militants occupy strategic territory; people vanish, leaving their loved ones with no idea whether they are alive or dead; drones and helicopters hover overhead; Saeed’s father sees some boys playing soccer with a human head; an upstairs neighbor is killed at home, and his blood seeps through the ceiling. One by one, the ordinary comforts and conveniences — cell-phone service, plumbing, electricity — disappear. There are endless public and private executions, with bodies hanging “from streetlamps and billboards like a form of festive seasonal decoration.” The purges come in waves; after each, there is a brief respite, “until someone committed an infraction of some kind, because infractions, although often alleged with a degree of randomness, were inevitably punished without mercy.”

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is the author, most recently, of Mister Monkey (Harper). She is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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