BOOK REVIEW: “What Strange Paradise” by Omar El Akkad is “Unforgettable”

GOOD Morning Wilton‘s book reviewer, Gayathri Kaimal, is a junior at Wilton High School and an avid reader who hopes to share her love of reading through her reviews. You can learn more about Gayathri on GMW‘s “Our Team” page. 

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad follows two children as they form a bond that transcends boundaries. Amir, a Syrian refugee, accidentally boards a boat headed to the Greek Island of Kos without his family. Too young to understand the repercussions of embarking on this journey, his only goal is to reunite with his family. As Amir attempts to evade the local police upon arriving in Greece, he is discovered by a local girl, Vänna. She vows to help him escape.

Though the novel is centered around Amir and Vänna, What Strange Paradise provides glimpses into other characters as well: Mohamed, a distrustful apprentice of the smugglers; Colonel Kethros, a jaded soldier focused on ridding his island of migrants; Madame El Ward, a daughter of immigrants determined to do some good; Umm Ibrahim, a kind-hearted pregnant woman protecting Amir. What Strange Paradise begins in media res, with a vivid description of a shipwreck. “The child lies on the shore. All around him the beach is littered with the wreckage of the boat and the wreckage of its passengers: shards of decking, knapsacks cleaved and gutted, bodies frozen in unnatural contortion. Dispossessed of nightfall’s temporary burial, the dead ferment indecency. There’s too much of spring in the day, too much light.” Preceded by two epigraphs — one from a Civil War short story, the other from a story about youth, innocence, and a boy who never grows up — the haunting imagery of this scene foreshadows the futility of the journey.

What Strange Paradise alternates between the past and the future, between hope and despair. The shipwreck splits the novel in two, with each chapter describing either Before (the story of how Amir’s family flees Syria and how he reaches Greece) or After the accident (the story of Vänna and Amir’s attempts to evade Colonel Kethros and his soldiers). Many in Vänna’s town initially regard the migrants with simple indifference. However, the economic crisis fuels resentment and xenophobia. Colonel Kethros believes the migrants are colonizers, taking over his island. Nationalist politicians exploit the tension, manipulating facts to evade responsibility. The politics of fear also control the migrants, who are exploited by smugglers looking to cash in on their desperation. They entrust their life to these money-grubbing smugglers, overlooking important details necessary for survival. Passengers argue over Amir being allowed a life jacket, unaware that they are made out of foam and will only accelerate drowning. Additionally, though they are all physically in the same boat, racism and classism continue to persist. “In their silent reticence was evident the reality that somewhere along the journey they’d passed the point where human goodness gave way to the calculus of survival.”

Hope and kindness are also prevalent throughout the book. Umm Ibrahim looks after Amir as if he were her own son, and Madame El Ward breaks the rules to bring him to safety. However, the strongest reminder of hope and kindness lies in the bond between Vänna and Amir. Vänna watches her mother and others in the town dehumanize the migrants, and yet she never succumbs to the cynical attitudes of those around her. Instead, despite the language barrier that separates her and Amir, she immediately realizes she must get him to safety by whatever means necessary — no matter the consequences. Though the fate of Vänna and Amir remains ambiguous, their persistence and friendship serve as a reminder that “One should try to believe in things … even if they let you down afterward.”

The motivation of Colonel Kethros may appear foreign or unclear — is he obsessed with catching Amir because of lost idealism? A sense of pride? It is difficult to sympathize with him. Vänna initially seems much less complicated. Her generosity and kindness are much easier for us to understand. However, there are many like Colonel Kethros in the world, and very few Vännas, willing to put their life on the line for a stranger. Thus, What Strange Paradise provokes reflection: where does Vänna find her courage and selflessness, when she has been taught the exact opposite, and how can we find that compassion in ourselves?

What Strange Paradise is a captivating and compelling read. Omar El Akkad, a journalist who has reported from Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, creates a rich and detailed portrait of the migrant crisis, an increasingly relevant topic. Not only is the novel beautifully-written, but it is also filled with painfully honest lines: “Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.” However, readers of What Strange Paradise will never forget the story of Amir and Vänna.