STARRED REVIEW
August 2021

What Strange Paradise

By Omar El Akkad
Omar El Akkad’s second novel is an intimate action-adventure story in which hope and compassion have the power to transcend worldly disputes.
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According to the UN Refugee Agency, there were more than 26 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2019. Amid food insecurity, oppression and injustice, the global refugee crisis shows no signs of slowing, as migrants dare to cross dangerous seas on overcrowded ferries, fishing trawlers or other vessels in hopes of finding a better life. Many refugees fail to reach the next shore, becoming victims of dangerous waters or border patrols who turn them away.

For Amir Utu, a 9-year-old Syrian boy in Omar El Akkad’s riveting second novel, What Strange Paradise, the voyage is at first a grand adventure, like in the comic books he reads. But after washing ashore on an unnamed island’s beach as the only survivor, Amir soon learns that this is no adventure but rather a matter of survival. Almost at once, he is pursued by soldiers combing the beach, and he must flee to escape them, though he barely understands why he is running in the first place.

Amir’s flight brings him in contact with 15-year-old Vänna Hermes, who takes pity on him, hides him from the soldiers and tries to help him to safety. Amir is unable to understand Vänna’s language, but as the pair builds an unusual bond, Amir finds a friend amid a hostile world.

An international journalist and author of the acclaimed novel American War, El Akkad shapes What Strange Paradise mostly through Amir’s point of view, alternating between the boy’s immediate past and his present situation as he struggles to comprehend his plight. The author’s decision to focus on Amir’s youthful innocence serves to downplay the serious political undertones of the refugee crisis, transforming the boy’s tale into an intimate action-adventure story that’s laced with hope and compassion, emotions with the power to transcend borders and worldly disputes.

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What Strange Paradise

What Strange Paradise

By Omar El Akkad
Knopf
ISBN 9780525657903

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