What does it mean to “be” from a place? What connection does a person have to a piece of land, an area?
Mohsin Hamid, author of the wonderful Exit West, must have had these questions on his mind when he wrote: not only does he take them into account, but he peels back the layers of those (perhaps outdated) abstract notions of country and place.
Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that teeters on war, Exit West simultaneously feels dangerous, frightening, meditative, and peaceful . Hamid hints at the dangers that begin creeping into the city of Saeed and Nadia, the two beating hearts of the novel who quickly fall in love despite the looming threat of death, when armed militants begin dotting the streets. Gunfire, once distant, has now become the norm for the two lovers as they are forced to move from sitting on a balcony to hiding indoors. However, there are rumors that float in the battle-scared city that doors now exist that can transport people to the other side of the world in a matter of seconds.
The novel centers on Saeed and Nadia’s love affair and escape; author Hamid opts to pair them with long, flowing, run-on sentences that remind you of the eternity of time itself. That’s not knock against him, either. Each sentence is beautiful, sometimes written in past tense to balance a perfect sense of nostalgia and longing.
It’s with this gentle, soulful tone that Hamid deftly shifts from a existential examination of migration of people from dangerous areas of the world in search of safety to the migration that we each do as we age, whether we physically leave a space or not. It’s this changing — changing that no one can control — that creates both the novel’s sadness and truth.
Hamid writes that “[w]e are all migrants through time,” and nothing could be more true right now and always.