WHAT STRANGE PARADISE
By Omar El Akkad
In his first novel, “American War,” Omar El Akkad upended the world order with a long-running civil war in a future America, precisely describing the violence and miseries he had witnessed as a reporter covering Afghanistan, Guantánamo and the Arab Spring for The Globe and Mail in Canada.
In his new novel, “What Strange Paradise,” he draws this dystopia even closer to reality (and Western comfort zones), setting his narrative against actual events: the wars and revolutions of the Middle East and the migrant crisis that followed. It’s a similarly grand canvas of geopolitics, nativism and climate change, but this time, instead of unfurling a sweeping multigenerational epic, El Akkad keeps his plot and focus tight. Told from the point of view of two children, on the ground and at sea, the story so astutely unpacks the us-versus-them dynamics of our divided world that it deserves to be an instant classic. I haven’t loved a book this much in a long time.
The story begins with a shipwreck off a Greek island and the haunting, familiar image of bodies washed up on a beach. Among them is Amir, a 9-year-old Syrian boy, apparently the only survivor. He flutters his eyelids awake and instinctively runs away from the uniforms that have arrived to clean up the scene. At a nearby villa, he is hidden by a 15-year-old girl called Vänna, the granddaughter of Nordic transplants whose dreams of running a seaside guesthouse have been ruined by the Greek economic crisis.
[ Read an excerpt from “What Strange Paradise.” ]
Vänna and Amir do not understand each other’s language, but they are both marooned and alone, the good and innocent children of this fairy tale. It’s no surprise when Vänna, who feels alienated from both the island and her difficult parents, helps Amir avoid detention and tries to get to a ferryman who can take him to safety on the mainland.
Chapters alternate between “Before,” the story of Amir’s flight with his family from Syria and his journey as an accidental stowaway on a cramped and overloaded migrant boat across the Mediterranean, and “After,” which follows Vänna and Amir as they’re chased at every turn by the single-minded, one-legged Colonel Kethros and his soldiers.
These are twinned odysseys of obstacles and hardships, serendipities and the kindness of strangers, with characters as complicated as the human condition itself. The chapters swing to and fro like a pendulum between refugee and native, outsider and guest, those in distress and those on holiday. The “two opposing scripts come alive on one shared stage,” reflecting each other like mirrors and echoes.
Both the migrants on the boat and the people on the island talk and complain and wonder about the “other.” El Akkad cleverly shuffles between the reflections, prejudices and back stories of the two groups, effectively effacing assumptions of superiority and inferiority, good and bad. Mohamed, an enforcer on Amir’s boat who broadcasts his contempt for the migrants’ hopes as menacingly as he wields his gun, is later shown to be as frightened and angry as Colonel Kethros, nursing his own disillusion and PTSD.
Most devastating is El Akkad’s indictment of indifference. Vänna and Amir find the world hostile, unfair and callous. At one point they walk along a tourist beach where other children “scurry around, building sand castles and playing tag.” The islanders dismiss the migrants as “mosquitoes”: “These people, they don’t think, they don’t plan.” But the migrants also struggle to find compassion, especially as storms toss the boat and the journey frays their nerves. “What, better the fish should keep it?” one man asks as he takes the socks off an old man who has died. None pay any heed to those locked in the hold below; when a hand reaches up from the torn planking, it is only Amir who sees it and gives it half a mandarin.
Wisdom abounds, but as stark observation rather than comforting homily or advice. “There’s no such thing as conflict. There’s only scarcity, there’s only need,” Amir’s father says before he disappears into a Syrian prison. “One should try and believe in things,” says an optimistic English literature student from Gaza, “even if they let you down afterward.” Mohamed delivers us all a harsh reality check when he tells his passengers, “The two kinds of people in this world aren’t good and bad — they’re engines and fuel.” One will always use up the other.
El Akkad must have begun “What Strange Paradise” before Covid reintroduced us to our own fragility and hubris, but it reads as a parable for our times. “We’re all selfish and stupid,” Amir’s uncle says. “We’re all cowards,” admits Colonel Kethros. In a moment of drowning, in that liminal space between life and death, Amir suddenly understands everything: All our love and avarice and hopes and failings are unbound in a passage of such beautiful writing that I would cite it here in its entirety if I didn’t want people to have the joy of reading it fresh on the page.
For Vänna, having such a revelation herself, “the bridge turns to sky, the ground to air.” El Akkad wants to turn the reader upside down too, to invert notions of liberal sanctimony and sacred individualisms. This extraordinary book carries a message, not of a trite and clichéd hope, but of a greater universal humanism, the terrifying idea that, ultimately, there are no special distinctions among us, that in fact we are all very much in the same boat.