‘What a Strange Paradise’ touches the human spirit

Nikolai Gentes, Staff

Of the many novels published in 2021, few were as poignant, hard-hitting and well-written as Omar El Akkad’s “What Strange Paradise. It’s a story that is just as touching as it is topical.

El Akkad’s books are no strangers to tough topics. His bestselling 2017 novel “American Waraddresses climate change and the probability of a modern civil war. His newest novel, What Strange Paradise is no less impactful with its subject matter, centering around the refugee crisis in our world. 

It tells the story of a young Syrian refugee named Amir whose ship crashes and washes up on an island while trying to escape his home country. He survives the wreck and is rescued by a native girl named Vanna after fleeing from soldiers. Despite the fact that Vanna and Amir don’t share a common language, she is determined to help him. It’s a sad and emotional book that simultaneously remains hopeful. 

At a compact 235 pages, El Akkad doesn’t waste a single letter throughout the novel, and his skilled craftsmanship and expert storytelling craft a story that is very tightly written and well-constructed. 

Despite being shorter than many novels that deal in the same subject matter, the characters and their respective storylines in “What Strange Paradise” never feel half-baked. This, in turn, makes it incredibly accessible and a terrific depiction of the lives of refugees and the less fortunate. 

As such, it’s the perfect novel for those who wish to gain a new perspective but don’t wish to saddle themselves with 500 pages. Despite its trim structure, the book doesn’t dumb down or limit its message. El Akkad’s ability to do so much with so little is very impressive..

El Akkad’s ability to create complex and intriguing characters is perhaps the novel’s greatest strength. Each character feels fleshed out and carefully crafted, with their individual traits, feelings and actions all portrayed in realistic and interesting ways. 

For example, Vanna’s wit and cleverness are masterfully displayed. When she and Amir must lie in order to bypass a soldier standing guard at a building, Vanna not only comes up with a fib on the spot, but begins immediately making escape plans in case things go wrong. El Akkad expertly shows Vanna’s skills in a clear, yet almost understated way, writing: “She chooses a direction–south, toward the cloudstone caves…It’s only a couple of miles away; they can make it.” 

This adds a layer of depth and intelligence to the character that builds a far stronger connection between her and the reader. 

The character “Quiet Uncle” also receives a great amount of depth and detail. As his name suggests, he is Amir’s uncle and depicted as a submissive, non-confrontational, and erratic man who sometimes lacks the courage necessary to stand up for his family. When he discovers that Amir has unknowingly followed him onto a ship to flee Syria, Quiet Uncle initially reacts with rage, grabbing hold of Amir’s neck. 

However, he quickly softens, giving Amir his life jacket as well as his seat on the ship, choosing instead to downgrade himself to a worse seat for Amir’s benefit. These contrasting emotions help  fill in the character in a way that feels natural, opening the door for sympathy. 

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the tension El Akkad creates. Conflicts are set up beautifully in “What Strange Paradise”. When antagonist Colonel Kathros is introduced, Vanna is picking up hamburgers for her family and Amir. Kathros is suspicious of her actions and questions her in a way that seems innocent but suggests an underlying menace. 

Another tense moment in the novel comes when The Calypso, the ship Amir is escaping on with Quiet Uncle, begins to experience trouble from a storm. Since the story is told in a non-linear way, the reader already knows The Calypso is going to crash; however, it manages to make it through these troubles, and the characters celebrate, open up, expand and flesh out. Yet the reader knows for a fact that the ship will eventually wreck, and they know that at any moment disaster will strike, putting them on the edge of their seat. 

What Strange Paradise is an essential examination of the horrors of our world and provides a deeper look into the refugee crisis through a beautiful story, strong characters and sensitive writing that combine to make an important book and an incredibly enjoyable one as well.