I received an Advance Reader’s Copy from the publisher and from NetGalley in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.
What Strange Paradise ends with such a gut punch that it’s almost impossible to think back over the novel without thinking of it in light of those final lines. At the same time, that ending punch is important and, I think, it’s important that it comes as a surprise so I don’t want to give it away.
Having read El Akkad’s previous novel, American War, I expected something similar in topic and style. Overall, What Strange Paradise takes a more conventional storytelling approach, focusing on two main characters with a few crucial side characters. The story is told in divided sections, titled either Then or Now. None of that is to say the story isn’t fresh or fascinating to read, simply that it largely felt like it was written by a different author. If anything, I think that speaks to Omar El Akkad’s talent as a writer.
Then Amir lived in a foreign country with his mother, his stepfather (who used to be his Quiet Uncle), and his baby brother. Amir and his family have had to leave their home suddenly and are living an in-between sort of life, never entirely safe from the dangers they’ve fled from. Without meaning to, Amir boards a boat one night, surrounded by strangers, heading to a place he doesn’t know. As the reader, we know more about Amir’s journey and destination than Amir does and the tension only ramps up as his journey becomes more and more dangerous.
Now Amir is the only survivor of the boat, washed ashore on an unknown island and in hiding from local authorities. He meets and befriends a slightly older local girl, Vanna. Despite their language barriers and despite the risk it imposes on her, Vanna chooses to help Amir and together they attempt to reach true freedom.
Although no countries or towns are named, the connections to real life are obvious. Amir and his family have presumably left Syria for Egypt and Amir ends up on a Greek Island, possibly Kos. The opening image of Amir waking up on the shore after the ship wrecks is a clear callback to the image of Alan Kurdi that finally drew the eyes of the world to the Syrian refugee crisis. In this way, the novel asks us certain real life questions. What if Alan Kurdi had lived? What if he were alone? Who would have helped him? How much are we willing to sacrifice to help others? How much of our own lives will we give up to defend those who are defenceless? None of these questions are presented in a preachy or straightforward way but as we follow Amir’s and Vanna’s stories, we are confronted by our own responses to the real world crises that exist around us. It isn’t until the end that it all splits open in a new way.
And about that ending…I don’t usually like it when books, almost in their last breath, change gears. It can feel cheap but I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case here. El Akkad is skilled enough that I was left saying, “Ohhh, of course! How could I have missed it?” The signs are all there and perhaps other readers will pick up on them better than I did. As it is, this is the kind of book that, as soon as I finished, I immediately wanted to re-read it.