Maybe Lewis Carroll is as good a guide as anyone to the world of today. Alice falls down a rabbit hole or walks through the looking-glass, and encounters a different, bizarre and confusing reality which has its own peculiar logic.
Mohsin Hamid’s novel plays similar tricks. While remaining mostly rooted in a recognisable reality – it begins in a city where insurgent militants, religious zealots, are establishing a reign of terror – it offers a Carrollian way-out, Exit West. Dark doors appear in the city and if you can find and pay an agent to facilitate it, you can step through these doors, and find yourself in another country. This is the experience of Nadia and Saeed, young middle-class professionals hesitantly in love with each other. Their doorway lands them first in a refugee camp on the island of Mykonos and another door will admit them to London.
You can call this Magic Realism, but the magic is merely a conjuror’s to enable Hamid to explore the nature of contemporary reality. The city where they grew up and met each other, and from which they escape after the killing of Saeed’s mother, might be Lahore where Hamid grew up; it might be anywhere in today’s turbulent world. It is realistically and disturbingly presented. Likewise, the lovers’ relationship is true to common experience in its ebbs and flows, and is deftly and sympathetically done.
Hamid is all too aware that in the world today it is possible to pass much of your time in an alternative reality conjured up for you by means of your mobile phone and various apps, and this alternative reality may be as strange, exciting and disconcerting as anything Alice found on the other side of the looking-glass. Yet this quasi-magical world that is now available exists side by side with the often grim and painful facts of war, terrorism, migration, violent changes of climate, all the uncertainties, fears and horrors of the world as it is. No wonder so many find it hard to accommodate themselves to change, to cope with the extremities of experience.
In an interview published in the New Yorker, Hamid said: “Fiction can imagine differently. Wrenching climate change will happen. Mass migration will happen, on a vast scale. But maybe our children and grandchildren can still hope to imagine a world where they have a chance at hope and optimism. Fiction can explore this possibility – it can make human beings less unmoored by the endless nature of change.”
Pretty well everyone in this careful, well-written, and often enchanting novel is indeed unmoored – like millions in the world today, even like those who are merely baffled or disturbed by their experience of a world turned upside down. But those who trust in human affection can come through, even when the bonds that hold them together become loose, as happens with Nadia and Saeed. Even those condemned to wander may find it possible to let down an anchor and give their life a new and satisfying shape.
As Hamid says in that interview: “If we can’t imagine desirable futures for ourselves that actually stand a chance of coming to pass, our collective depression could well condemn humanity to a period of terrible savagery.” Such savagery is around us, all too evident, experienced by millions directly, by millions more at one remove. This novel bravely addresses that reality, so it is very much a tract for our time.
But it also, in the truest sense, presents us with the idea or image of an alternative and better world which can be realised by imaginative sympathy. It is written in a cool and lucid prose, which makes the improbable seem possible.
Against cruelty and fanaticism, intolerance, xenophobia and darkness, it speaks up for the humane values of love and friendship, and invites us to look towards the light. It is humorous and witty – like the Alice books.
Venture down the rabbit-hole or through the looking-glass and you find yourself in a world which is beautiful and strange, which makes new sense out of what seems like nonsense. It’s a considerable achievement.