The compelling allure of Mohsin Hamid
Illustration: Sophie Kenyon
From time to time, a novelist jumps from the shelf with a new, invigorating voice that makes reading seem reborn: not just modern and enterprising, but exciting, enjoyable and electrifying. Mohsin Hamid is such an author. Not content with adopting a single narrative voice and uncomplicatedly relaying a story, Hamid challenges the conventions of the novel, ripping up the rulebook and reshaping his reader’s perspective.
I first came across Hamid’s writing by chance when travelling around Italy. Having finished her backpacking library, my partner entered a bookshop searching for a companion for the long train ride ahead. On a shelf of Victorian classics containing Dickens and Trollope, Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke, stood out in its modernity: intriguing and innovative among its bricklike neighbours. Having previously enjoyed Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, my girlfriend was immediately drawn to reading another south-Asian writer.
Yet, Hamid’s novel exceeded all her expectations. Where Hosseini is an enchanting storyteller full of beautiful descriptions and heart-breaking emotions, Hamid is experimental, tinkering with techniques to keep his reader engaged.
Moth Smoke hints at this variety in Hamid’s style, alternating between narrators and timeframes. With extracts written as evidence for a court case, Hamid adds anticipation and intrigue to the novel’s simple plot. The story tracks the descent of the protagonist, Daru, from respectable banker into unemployment, drugs and an affair with his best friend’s wife. Hamid’s framing constantly signposts the disastrous consequences that Daru’s actions will have, elevating the novel to a carefully sculpted piece of art.
In his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid uses this narrative experimentation to even greater effect. It is written as a monologue in Pakistan from the mysterious Changez, who has accosted an American traveller. The novel’s direct address to the reader is immediately arresting, reminiscent of the dramatic monologues made famous by Browning and Tennyson. What begins as an emotional confession from a chatty local, transforms into a vitriolic attack on the Western lifestyle, conveying a dark and threatening undertone.
Changez recalls how he wholeheartedly bought into the American dream, studying at Princeton, working in New York and chasing a relationship with an American girl, Erica. However, following the 9/11 attacks, Changez finds his opportunities blocked by racism and his courting of Erica rebuffed. A disillusionment grows within him. In his seductive prose, Hamid’s speaker seeks to reassure his reader, but the fault lines of his anger become impossible to hide.
With great subtlety and skill, Hamid lays splinters of distrust in Changez’s speech, forcing open the cracks in his visage patiently until they are wide crevasses for the reader to fall through. Yet, he challenges his reader too, making them responsible for Changez’s discrimination and questioning the institutions that Western life is built upon.
Born in Pakistan and brought up between America and his home country, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hamid’s novels centre on these tensions between the East and the West. Where in Hosseini’s writing, America offers a refuge from Afghanistan’s violence, Hamid views Western culture with a far more critical eye. His novels hold a mirror up to British and American readers, confronting their privilege and perspectives.
Never is this clearer than in his latest novel, Exit West. Published in 2017, Exit West tells the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young adults who meet and fall in love in an unnamed city. Yet, soon their love is eclipsed by the violence of their surroundings. As insurgents flock into the city, Nadia and Saeed adapt to a world where killing is more common than kissing, loathing more natural than loving.
Hamid’s distant third-person narrator contributes to the harrowing normality of the conflict, removing emotion from descriptions to state facts with painful plainness. Fable-like in its tone, the cold narration suggests the lovers are not unique, but rather representative in their plight.
Mystically, drawing on the influence of magical realism, doors begin to appear across the city and offer an escape to different places. When Nadia and Saeed agree to depart through one of these doors, abandoning family and the city they love, they undertake a journey like those made by millions every year, fleeing war-torn states in the hope of a better life. The link to the world’s many migrants is made clear in the arrival of the couple in a dangerous and dirty camp in Mykonos, surrounded by others like them, stranded between nations and struggling to survive. Yet, while the scenes in Mykonos build sympathy for the camp’s inhabitants, Hamid’s most cutting comment is reserved for the West, when Nadia and Saeed find a doorway to London.
Arriving in an empty town mansion, the couple claim a room for themselves. Soon hundreds are filling the house and the luxurious buildings next to it, amazed that such grandeur can be left uninhabited. Yet, despite displaying no physical threat, the new arrivals are shunned and hunted by the natives. Fear grows within them and they are unable to feel at home. Through his sensitive depiction of Nadia and Saeed’s journey, Hamid examines the horror which is many people’s reality; their potential salvation destroyed by nationalist hostility.
These cutting social critiques, intertwined with brilliant storylines and generic experimentation, mark Hamid out as a special author. His writing holds not only the ability to entertain, but to educate, reforming the world for his reader and pushing the limits of what the novel can be.
As the world emerges from the paralysis of pandemic, Hamid’s dynamic novels are the perfect reading partner, reminding us of the issues and divisions which plague the planet. In moulding the novel to his needs, he captivates as much as he challenges, making it exciting to think about what he might write next.