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What Strange Paradise

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Member Reviews

Readers should be forewarned that this book, which explores the global refugee crisis, will not leave them unaffected.
Amir Utu is a 9-year-old Syrian boy who is the only survivor when an overloaded, unequipped, and dilapidated boat sinks.  He washes up on the beach of an unnamed Mediterranean island where he encounters a local girl, 15-year-old Vänna Hermes.  In chapters entitled “Before” we learn about Amir’s past and how he came to be on the boat; in alternating chapters entitled “After” we see how Vänna tries to help Amir escape authorities and get to safety.  

Like the author’s debut novel, American War, this one asks readers to put themselves in the position of displaced and desperate people.  Amir’s family faces disbelief, selfishness, indifference, and callousness wherever they go.  They leave Syria because their home was destroyed and stay with Mona, a distant relative in Damascus, though “it was clear that Mona intended theirs to be a short visit, a temporary respite to wherever they were going.”  Mona, clearly a Bashar al-Assad supporter, tells Amir’s mother that she must be exaggerating what happened and that the destruction shown on television is “all made up” and tells her “’you really can’t let yourself be so easily fooled.’”  

Of course the migrants come under the control of smugglers who are concerned only with money.  Migrants are deceived into thinking they will get safe passage on a seaworthy craft, but conditions are horrific. I found the description of the sea passage particularly harrowing; more than once I was reminded of what slave ships must have been like.  In fact, some are intended “’for the market.’”   Even the migrants become concerned only with their own survival:  “somewhere along the journey they’d passed the point where human goodness gave way to the calculus of survival.”  

Any refugees who do make it to land do not receive the most compassionate of care:  “those who survived the passage were taken to wait while, slowly and with well-honed inefficiency, the system considered their appeals for asylum.”  A coast guard officer who finds that migrants were given faulty life jackets blames the migrants:  “’These people, they don’t think . . . They don’t plan.’”  For the tourism industry and wealthy tourists, migrants are an inconvenience:  a wreck on the beach “has ruined the tourists’ day, confining them to the grounds of their hotel. . . . a middle-aged couple argue about whether to demand a refund.”  A nationalist politician, questioning why all the migrants have phones and why the women keep asking for contraceptive pills, illustrates an ignorance of the nature of the migrants’ plight.

Many of the migrants hope to make it to the West, but they are warned about what awaits them.  One of the smugglers who admits to being a “black-market hustler” says, “’You think the black market is bad?  Brother, wait till you see the white market’” because “’when you finally get over there to the promised land, . . . you [will] see how those dignified, civilized Westerners treat you – when you find out what they expect of you is to live your whole life like a dog under their dinner table.’”  Amir is told, “’You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief.  They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves.  Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.’”

It is the children in the book who possess admirable traits.  Amir, who has so little, more than once shares food with others.  Vänna is empathetic and courageous; she vows that only when she sees Amir to safety will she return home to face the consequences of her actions.  Appropriately, her surname is that of the Greek god who served as the messenger of the gods and protector of travellers; she shows how the gods want humans to act.  Most of the adults lack empathy and behave cowardly, though of course, “’only a coward survives the absurd.’”  

This book has so many strengths; it has realistic, well-developed characters and lots of suspense, as well as theme which should have everyone thinking.  The ending may be unsatisfactory to some, but I found it most appropriate.  

Read this book about people who have “shed their belongings and their roots and their safety and their place of purpose and all claim to agency over their own being” and ask yourself what you would do if you were to encounter Amir.  Would you act like Vänna or like Dimitri Kethros?  We also need to ask ourselves what we have done since seeing the photo of Alan Kurdi in 2015, a photo which this novel certainly brought to mind.

Note:  I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.
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This one I thought was amazing.  It's a tough read and I think everyone will remember Alan Kurdi when they read it even though the boy in this story is older.  Vanna the young girl who saves him has a horrible life on the island partly because the refugees have ruined the tourism industry.  There are bad guys and good guys (and women) on both sides. I think this should be on the Canadian prize lists (why don't they ask me I wonder?)
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“Every man you ever meet is nothing but the product of what was withheld from him, what he feels owed, Don’t call this a conflict, Amir’s father said. There’s no such thing as conflict. There’s only scarcity, there’s only need.”

What Strange Paradise begins with an arresting image: the bodies of drowned people have come to rest on the beach of a tourist town in, presumably, the Mediterranean (though it’s never named). We linger on the body of a little boy, evoking well known media images. Suddenly, his eyes open.

From there, the book is structured in alternating chapters entitled “Before” and “After”. In “Before” chapters, we learn how Amir came to be where he was. “After” chapters follow Amir and Vanna, a teenager he meets on the island, as they seek safe refuge. El Akkad slowly increases the narrative tension as you anticipate two outcomes: first, the place where the “Before” chapters catch up to the “After” chapters, and second, what happens at the end of the “After” chapters. It makes for a compelling reading experience.

What a powerful book. What Strange Paradise had my attention and my heart from beginning to end, an end which is as striking as the beginning. I haven’t read An American War, so this was my introduction to El Akkad’s writing. It did not surprise me to learn he is a journalist as What Strange Paradise takes the migrant crisis, often obscured by a focus on numbers and politics, and brings it down to an individual, and very human level.

Focused on a timely, global issue, with an interesting structure, sympathetic characters, and precise and accessible prose, What Strange Paradise will be one of my more memorable reads of 2021. I’m coming to realize that books about children often capture my attention (perhaps it is the former teacher in me). I hope it ends up on one or other of the Canadian book prizes this fall (and maybe beyond?). Highly recommend.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and NetGalley for this eARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Have included this novel in the July instalment of Novel Encounters, my regular column highlighting the month's top fiction for Zed, Zoomer magazine’s reading and books section (full review and feature at link).
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I loved American War (4 years later, I would still say it is one of my all-time favourite books) & although this book has a different setting in time and place, I feel like many of the themes Omar El Akkad explored in his first book are front and centre in What Strange Paradise. What happens to people who are disadvantaged, displaced and desperate? What leads people to leave their homes and risk their lives? Equally important, what will those who can help them do when they are called to act? What Strange Paradise is like a hard-hitting, beautifully-written punch that can’t help but draw the reader’s empathy. I read this quickly but have been thinking about it ever since. This will especially be an excellent read for book clubs or groups who can really dig in and discuss its themes and intentions.
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