James Mcnamara

Flee or die

Mohsin Hamid’s vivid new novel about global displacement makes you feel it’s your own future that might be at stake

Every nation has the right to control its borders, but we in the West are getting a bit too comfortable dehumanising other humans for failing to fill out forms in triplicate before fleeing the carpet-bombing of their cities. In recent months, Theresa May has rejected Calais’s child refugees; Donald Trump has seemingly tried (unsuccessfully, twice) to ban Muslims; and Australia has gone full ‘Dickensian judge’ and chucked its refugees on a prison island. So at a time when expressing the hope that refugee kids don’t starve to death in camps marks one out as a ‘luvvie snowflake’, it’s good to have a writer grab us by the lapels and shout: ‘Look, we all know mass global displacement is a bit complex, but we can’t just tell everyone running from war to fuck off. ‘

Mohsin Hamid does that (albeit more subtly) in his stunning novel, Exit West. In an unnamed but moderate Middle Eastern city, Saeed and Nadia fall in love. They are, Hamid shows, rather like us. Saeed’s beloved parents are quiet bohemians; Nadia smokes hash and rides a motorcycle. Together, she and Saeed listen to music and flicker through the world on social media. Aside from the occasional ‘flat cracks’ of gunfire, their city feels familiar. But while Saeed and Nadia’s love strengthens, the city crumbles and falls to fundamentalist insurgents, with public executions and fighter-bomber airstrikes dropping bombs that explode ‘with an awesome power that brought to mind the might of nature itself’. When Saeed’s mother is killed in her car by ‘a stray heavy-caliber round… taking with it a quarter of [her] head’, the family must flee or die.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, legacy and lastings greatness – Listen and subscribe to the Spectator Books podcast, hosted by Sam Leith:

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in