Omar El Akkad | What Strange ParadiseReviewed by: Stewart Goodings
A few years ago, images of a dead Syrian boy on a Mediterranean beach shocked the world into vivid awareness of the growing tragedy of our global migrant / refugee crisis. This same image clearly inspired Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise, a brilliant novel that won last year’s Giller Prize.
The book joins a growing body of fiction about refugees and migrants, such as Christy Lefteri’s “The Songbirds”, Aislinn Hunter’s “The Certainties”, Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”, Jeanine Collins’ “American Dirt” and Sharon Bala’s “The Boat People.” El Akkad previous novel, American War, was described as a chillingly prescient story about civil strife in the USA.
What Strange Paradise consists of alternating chapters from After and Before. After, a nine-year old boy named Amir is the only survivor of a wrecked migrant ship. Tension ramps up in the After sections as Amir is befriended by a local teenage girl, Vanna, and together they seek to elude capture by immigration authorities. Before chapters describe how Amir and his family fled the war in Syria. These segments offer graphic portrayals of the turmoil, bribery, abuse, and terrible choices facing millions like Amir’s family as they seek refuge. El Akkad has crafted an intimate tale, almost an adventure story, but framed within the context of the Big Story of forced migration. The powerful narrative is filled with superb writing that is enlivened by occasional moments of empathy and humour amidst the wreckage. A short book, 235 pages, it offers much to savour, reflect on, and be inspired by.
Omar El-Akkad is one of Canada’s brightest young literary talents and we are delighted to welcome him to our next Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival, in July 2023.