Eli Jelly-Schapiro at The Millions:
Mohsin Hamid’s new novel Exit West begins in an unnamed city fractured by political violence. There, two young people come together as everything around them is breaking apart. Nadia is a cultural rebel who wears a full black robe, “so men don’t fuck with [her]” as she traverses the city on her motorcycle. Saeed is a devoted son who wears “studiously maintained stubble” and passes quiet evenings on the balcony, gazing out at the city rather than immersing himself in it. Before these patient lovers make the exit promised by the novel’s title, and compelled by the tightening grip of civil war, Nadia ventures beyond the city through her phone, which she rides into and over the world, watching “bombs falling, women exercising, men copulating, waves tugging at the sand like the rasping licks of so many mortal, temporary, vanishing tongues.” Registering both brutality and beauty, the planetary sight that Nadia simulates here mirrors that aspired to by Hamid’s powerful book.
The novel traces Nadia and Saeed’s journey from their home city to the island of Mykonos, to London, and finally to the hills of California — a route of escape if not liberation enabled by a series of magical doors, portals that highlight through omission the unrepresentable terror of the passages in between. Progress through them — which is “both like dying and like being born” — is attained not just by the novel’s protagonists but by several people its panoramic vision only ephemerally registers: a man with “dark skin and dark, wooly hair” struggles out of a closet door in Sydney; two Filipina women emerge from a disused door at the rear of a bar in Tokyo; a young woman slips out of a black door in a Tijuana cantina; a Tamil family wanders out of an interior service door below a cluster of “blond-and-glass” luxury towers in Dubai.