Review: What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.

Publisher: Titan Books
Published: January 2022
Pages: 368


More bodies have washed up on the shores of a small island. Another over-filled, ill-equipped, dilapidated ship has sunk under the weight of its too-many passengers: Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, all of them desperate to escape untenable lives in their homelands. And only one had made the passage: nine-year-old Amir, a Syrian boy who has the good fortune to fall into the hands not of the officials, but of Vänna: a teenage girl, native to the island, who lives inside her own sense of homelessness in a place and among people she has come to disdain. And though Vänna and Amir are complete strangers and don’t speak a common language, Vänna determines to do whatever it takes to save him.

In alternating chapters, we learn the story of Amir’s life and of how he came to be on the boat; and we follow the duo as they make their way towards a vision of safety. But as the novel unfurls, we begin to understand that this is not merely the story of two children finding their way through a hostile world. Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise is the story of our collective moment in this time: of empathy and indifference, of hope and despair – and of the way each of those things can blind us to reality, or guide us to a better one.

My Thoughts…

What Strange Paradise is one of those books that left me thinking long after the final page had turned, with its deceivingly simple plot hiding multiple layers of complexity and possible interpretations.

This book is rooted in a modern drama, the so-called “refugee crisis”, and the daily tragedy of people forced to make a perilous journey in appalling conditions, risking (and often losing) their lives in the process. When the story starts, one such tragedy has just occurred: a boat sank near a small island, all its passengers washing to shore dead. All except one boy, Amir, the only survivor who manages to elude the officials and meet Vänna, a local teenage girl determined to save him.

The story is told in alternating chapters, moving between “Before” and “After” the shipwreck. In the time before, we follow Amir on the path that will take him to finding himself on that boat in the first place, while the “After” focuses on the two children’s attempts to reach safety and evade the capture attempts made by the local military officials.

I liked the structure of the novel and how information was slowly unveiled in the alternation between before and after. Many things could be written or said about this topic, and I liked how the author chose to focus on a few aspects of the journey and the different people who might find themselves caught up in a situation such as this.

The complexity of the issue emerges very clearly, and I was particularly struck by the reflections weaved throughout. A subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) critique of modern society emerges at several points throughout the novel, its hypocrisy and performative solidarity being openly discussed by characters at several points and evidenced by the actions of others, like the tourists whose reaction to the tragedy unfolding before their eyes is annoyance at having lost a day on the beach. As one character at one point puts it:

You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march on the streets on your behalf, they will write to the 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.

(quote taken from the ARC version, may be different in the final version)

Where I was slightly underwhelmed was in the characters. Perhaps it was exactly the intention here and I completely misunderstood it, but some of the characters felt rather flat and lacking in depth. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor thing but it stopped me from fully being able to empathise and care about some of the characters, reducing the emotional impact that certain scenes could have had.

Overall, What Strange Paradise is a deeply moving, gorgeously lyrical novel existing in the bittersweet space between fantasy and reality, between hope and desperation. Chock-full of material for a deeper reflection on a wide range of topics, it’s one of those books I wish more people close to me had read just so I could discuss it with them, from the beginning right up to that perfect ending. Definitely well suited for a book club discussion!

Rating: 4.5/5

Four butterflies to indicate rating.

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