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Mohsin Hamid’s use of ‘doors’ to travel across the world helps liberate not just his characters in Exit West, they also liberate the writer.Jillian Edelstein

I used to be friends with a boy from nowhere. We met in school in the Persian Gulf when we were 12 or 13. I asked him where he was from and he said, in an awkward, offhand way, that he was Palestinian – not in the sense that he knew or cared very much about a place called Palestine, or that he had lived in or even visited the place, but that somewhere in his lineage existed a sense of national belonging that had been handed down to him, no different than his family name. Every other Palestinian I'd ever met wore their national heritage with fierce pride, but my friend carried it around like a lead weight.

A couple of years after we first met, my friend and I went on a school trip to Switzerland. I remember all the students passing quietly through the security checkpoint in Geneva, a bored customs officer stamping each of our passports in turn – except my friend. He had to go to another room and show his papers. We all waited until he emerged, some 15 minutes later. He said nothing about what happened until we were well past security. Finally, standing by the baggage carousel, he swore to me that the day his family finally completed their immigration process and he got his hands on a Canadian passport, he'd come back to Geneva and shove it in the border guards' faces. I understood then that he cared as little about Canada as he did about Palestine or anywhere else. The only thing that concerned him was escaping the ranks of the placeless, of never again being ordered to show his papers.

I thought about him for the first time in decades while reading Exit West, the quietly exquisite new novel from Mohsin Hamid. A masterpiece of humanity and restraint, it is an antidote to the cruelty of a present in which those who leave the places of their birth seeking a better life are routinely demonized, imprisoned or left to die. But at the novel's core is something more fundamental than the whims of politics – an exploration of human needs so universal, they elevate Exit West from a product of our time to something timeless.

The novel tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, citizens of an unnamed country that's falling apart. Amid the raging conflict they meet, engage in cautious nighttime flirtations and fall into something approximating love. But as war increasingly makes life – or even the shadow life they live so as to avoid the wrath of their country's conservatism – untenable, the young couple decide to flee. They hear about a series of "doors" that pop up in unpredictable places around the city. The doors lead elsewhere in the world, the exact locations unknowable until the traveller has walked past the threshold. But driven to desperation by violence, radicalization, self- and state-imposed silence, Saeed and Nadia decide to risk it. Even the unknown is preferable to ruin.

From there, the novel follows the couple's migratory flow along the ethereal stream of the global refugee class. One door leads to a migrant camp in Greece, another to a mansion in London, another to a fog-blanketed tent city in the Northern California highlands – each place accessible simply by passing through the portal of an unguarded door.

By creating these doors, Hamid escapes the suffocating grasp of logistics. With a single stroke of imaginative genius, he tears a hole clean through the massive bureaucratic fabric of walls and fences built to protect the native from the foreigner, the winners of history's lottery from those whose fruitless tickets helped fatten the jackpot. Hamid's border-mocking doors don't liberate the characters, they liberate the writer.

There's a lightness to the author's lyricism, his every sentence fit to be whispered. It's the language of daydreams, where the deeply desired intermingles with the plainly surreal. There are moments of brutality – limbs torn apart by improvised explosions, a group of young men playing football with a severed head – but they are fleeting, secondary.

Whereas the book's most affecting section, a short vignette describing the evolution of Saeed's religiosity, contains no violence at all, only a surgically precise depiction of a man who prays "as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way." It's a gorgeous, simple style, the sentences long and winding, and by the end of the book it's impossible to imagine Exit West could have been written any other way.

My friend from nowhere eventually got his Canadian passport. He's a compulsive traveller now, and seems to always be living in some new locale or another. He travels freely, no longer escorted by stone-faced officers into airport backrooms and asked demeaning questions about an ancestral inheritance over which he had no say.

I wonder sometimes if he doesn't think of it as a kind of defiance, this wanderlust – a rejection of the prevailing view of the world as both parcelled and partisan. Because what more effective protest of this dark, isolationist age of ours than the simple act of passage? The only living part of life is movement, and we are only as free as our flight paths.

Omar El Akkad's novel, American War, will be published in April.

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