Review: What Strange Paradise
Updated: May 22
What Strange Paradise, by Omar El Akkad (2021)
Beautiful and haunting and cinematic.
The narrative follows Amir Utu, a 9-year old Syrian boy who washes ashore on a small Greek island - seemingly the only survivor from the wreck of a boat carrying refugees. The chapters go back and forth between "Before" and "After." In the before-chapters, we meet Amir and his family, learn how he came to be on the boat alone, and follow the boat journey, meeting some of the other refugees aboard. In the after-chapters Amir is on the run from officers who would place him in a refugee camp - specifically, Colonel Kethros, who is hell bent on finding and detaining him.
Amir is helped along by 15-year old Vanna, a young girl he meets when he comes upon her house as he's running from the beach. Vanna and Amir travel across the island on foot, hoping to reach the far side where another boat waits to take Amir to safety.
The final chapter, titled "Now," may seem a bit confusing, and might be off putting for some readers... stick with it. I was completely confused at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense. If you do decide to read this book, go back and re-read Chapter 28 after you're done, and do a little dive into the significance of Vanna's last name.
El Akkad is a brilliant story teller, particularly when it comes to shedding light on issues facing displaced people. His first novel, American War, was Writers & Books' 2019 Rochester Reads book, and I had the pleasure of meeting El Akkad and hearing him speak here in Rochester. Like American War, this book was poignant and topical, with so much heart. I highly recommend both novels.
UP NEXT: The Liar's Dictionary, by Eley Williams