Book Review: ‘What Strange Paradise,’ by Omar El Akkad

by Msnbctv news staff

By Omar El Akkad

In his first novel, “American Warfare,” Omar El Akkad upended the world order with a long-running civil conflict in a future America, exactly describing the violence and miseries he had witnessed as a reporter masking Afghanistan, Guantánamo and the Arab Spring for The Globe and Mail in Canada.

In his new novel, “What Unusual Paradise,” he attracts this dystopia even nearer to actuality (and Western consolation zones), setting his narrative towards precise occasions: the wars and revolutions of the Center East and the migrant disaster that adopted. It’s a equally grand canvas of geopolitics, nativism and local weather change, however this time, as an alternative of unfurling a sweeping multigenerational epic, El Akkad retains his plot and focus tight. Informed from the perspective of two youngsters, on the bottom and at sea, the story so astutely unpacks the us-versus-them dynamics of our divided world that it deserves to be an instantaneous basic. I haven’t liked a ebook this a lot in a very long time.

The story begins with a shipwreck off a Greek island and the haunting, acquainted picture of our bodies washed up on a seaside. Amongst them is Amir, a 9-year-old Syrian boy, apparently the one survivor. He flutters his eyelids awake and instinctively runs away from the uniforms which have arrived to wash up the scene. At a close-by villa, he’s hidden by a 15-year-old lady known as Vänna, the granddaughter of Nordic transplants whose goals of operating a seaside guesthouse have been ruined by the Greek financial disaster.

[ Read an excerpt from “What Strange Paradise.” ]

Vänna and Amir don’t perceive one another’s language, however they’re each marooned and alone, the nice and harmless youngsters of this fairy story. It’s no shock when Vänna, who feels alienated from each the island and her tough dad and mom, helps Amir keep away from detention and tries to get to a ferryman who can take him to security on the mainland.

Chapters alternate between “Earlier than,” the story of Amir’s flight together with his household from Syria and his journey as an unintentional stowaway on a cramped and overloaded migrant boat throughout the Mediterranean, and “After,” which follows Vänna and Amir as they’re chased at each flip by the single-minded, one-legged Colonel Kethros and his troopers.

These are twinned odysseys of obstacles and hardships, serendipities and the kindness of strangers, with characters as sophisticated because the human situation itself. The chapters swing from side to side like a pendulum between refugee and native, outsider and visitor, these in misery and people on vacation. The “two opposing scripts come alive on one shared stage,” reflecting one another like mirrors and echoes.

Each the migrants on the boat and the folks on the island speak and complain and surprise concerning the “different.” El Akkad cleverly shuffles between the reflections, prejudices and again tales of the 2 teams, successfully effacing assumptions of superiority and inferiority, good and unhealthy. Mohamed, an enforcer on Amir’s boat who broadcasts his contempt for the migrants’ hopes as menacingly as he wields his gun, is later proven to be as frightened and offended as Colonel Kethros, nursing his personal disillusion and PTSD.

Most devastating is El Akkad’s indictment of indifference. Vänna and Amir discover the world hostile, unfair and callous. At one level they stroll alongside a vacationer seaside the place different youngsters “scurry round, constructing sand castles and taking part in tag.” The islanders dismiss the migrants as “mosquitoes”: “These folks, they don’t assume, they don’t plan.” However the migrants additionally battle to seek out compassion, particularly as storms toss the boat and the journey frays their nerves. “What, higher the fish ought to hold it?” one man asks as he takes the socks off an previous man who has died. None pay any heed to these locked within the maintain beneath; when a hand reaches up from the torn planking, it’s only Amir who sees it and provides it half a mandarin.

Knowledge abounds, however as stark remark moderately than comforting homily or recommendation. “There’s no such factor as battle. There’s solely shortage, there’s solely want,” Amir’s father says earlier than he disappears right into a Syrian jail. “One ought to attempt to imagine in issues,” says an optimistic English literature pupil from Gaza, “even when they allow you to down afterward.” Mohamed delivers us all a harsh actuality examine when he tells his passengers, “The 2 sorts of individuals on this world aren’t good and unhealthy — they’re engines and gasoline.” One will at all times burn up the opposite.

El Akkad will need to have begun “What Unusual Paradise” earlier than Covid reintroduced us to our personal fragility and hubris, nevertheless it reads as a parable for our instances. “We’re all egocentric and silly,” Amir’s uncle says. “We’re all cowards,” admits Colonel Kethros. In a second of drowning, in that liminal house between life and dying, Amir all of the sudden understands every thing: All our love and avarice and hopes and failings are unbound in a passage of such stunning writing that I’d cite it right here in its entirety if I didn’t need folks to have the enjoyment of studying it recent on the web page.

For Vänna, having such a revelation herself, “the bridge turns to sky, the bottom to air.” El Akkad desires to show the reader the other way up too, to invert notions of liberal sanctimony and sacred individualisms. This extraordinary ebook carries a message, not of a trite and clichéd hope, however of a higher common humanism, the terrifying concept that, in the end, there aren’t any particular distinctions amongst us, that in actual fact we’re all very a lot in the identical boat.

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