... El Akkad keeps his plot and focus tight. Told from the point of view of two children, on the ground and at sea, the story so astutely unpacks the us-versus-them dynamics of our divided world that it deserves to be an instant classic. I haven’t loved a book this much in a long time ... El Akkad cleverly shuffles between the reflections, prejudices and back stories of the two groups, effectively effacing assumptions of superiority and inferiority, good and bad ... Wisdom abounds, but as stark observation rather than comforting homily or advice ... reads as a parable for our times ... In a moment of drowning, in that liminal space between life and death, Amir suddenly understands everything: All our love and avarice and hopes and failings are unbound in a passage of such beautiful writing that I would cite it here in its entirety if I didn’t want people to have the joy of reading it fresh on the page ... This extraordinary book carries a message, not of a trite and clichéd hope, but of a greater universal humanism, the terrifying idea that, ultimately, there are no special distinctions among us, that in fact we are all very much in the same boat.
... riveting ... surprising ... vibrates between parable and particular. While the story is soaked in the sweat and blood of millions of wasted wanderers, it comes to life in the experiences of this one boy ... The simplicity of their friendship belies the novel’s true complexity — the way El Akkad has wrapped an adventure in a blanket of tragedy ... The scenes of their disastrous passage at sea are drawn with gorgeous and horrible strokes, sometimes Melvillean in their grandeur. In this way, the book functions on several levels at once, critiquing the West’s indifference while interrogating the refugees’ blended cynicism and naivete ... Nothing I’ve read before has given me such a visceral sense of the grisly predicament confronted by millions of people expelled from their homes by conflict and climate change. Though What Strange Paradise celebrates a few radical acts of compassion, it does so only by placing those moments of moral courage against a vast ocean of cruelty.
... riveting ... 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.
In his sharply etched fiction, mundane details accrete in startling and powerful ways ... a breathless adventure story that shows us Amir through the eyes of others ... The past-tense narrative, focused through Amir, calls to mind a play ... the darkness in What Strange Paradise is leavened by the hope Amir embodies. The dialogue on the boat is shot through with dark humour, and the present-tense section at times feels like a caper—including a hilarious scene in a hotel that for a moment ties the two narratives together. El Akkad is adept at interweaving literary contrivance with documentary-style realism—no mean feat—but there are times when the stitches show. Characters have a habit of bursting into stagy, implausibly well-honed monologues during dramatic confrontations, even in the present-tense chapters. And without giving anything away, there’s a twist in the book that, while well set-up, feels like an unnecessary wrinkle to add to an already knotty tale. Nevertheless, What Strange Paradise succeeds at what one senses might be El Akkad’s goal—to deepen our engagement with the world around us and with others’ stories.
This book is hard to read because it brings to the page the fear, suffering, language barriers, injustices, and risk of death that come with leaving home for some other hostile place, but it's also a pleasure to read, because hope and kindness light the story in unexpected ways ... El Akkad's precise prose allows him to inject heartfelt observations throughout the novel ... hope and despair, past and present, possibility and unlikelihood, kindheartedness and cruelty — they all fill the pages of this book with an exploration of all the sides of humanity. While this constant contrast is interesting, perhaps El Akkad's biggest accomplishment with What Strange Paradise is that it manages to push past political talking points and shocking statistics to rehumanize the discussion about migration on a global scale, and it does so with enough heart to be memorable.
... a powerful indictment of the west’s treatment of vulnerable, often traumatised, refugees ... As well as exploring the migrants’ reasons for risking life and limb, El Akkad’s clear-eyed account conveys the increasing desensitisation of ordinary people on the island, from the rescue team who move among the corpses and 'carefully pocket anything that sparkles', to the exasperated tourists whose tranquility has been disrupted and the coast guard who dismissively tosses aside a washed-up life jacket ... However, small acts of kindness restore our faith in humanity ... this compassionate novel could not be more timely.
... brief, taut, coolly delivered but with seas of emotion swirling beneath ... Though Amir is the story's center, he's enveloped in El Akkad's stiffer metacommentary on the migrant crisis from secondary characters ... The novel is strongest when El Akkad's lens is trained on Vanna and Amir. He refers to them together as 'children,' which is factually true, but also emphasizes the point that surviving in a hardhearted environment—even thinking of survival—requires a certain innocence. And a late twist in the novel applies some of that innocence to the reader. We're too easily tempted to apply pleasant, novelistic arcs to human lives, El Akkad suggests. He uses his own novel to remind us to distrust that instinct.
Though dark, even pitch-black, What Strange Paradise is also a deeply humanistic fable ... Their adventures are told in precise, keenly observed prose ... El Akkad’s vignettes of life at sea are especially textured ... El Akkad, an award-winning reporter who has covered the Arab spring and military trials in Guantánamo Bay, and whose debut fiction, 2017’s speculative American War, dealt with the climate emergency, gives the impression of wanting to write a rather different novel, one whose narrative arc isn’t so closely pegged to such young and psychologically elusive protagonists. Another important character, a one-legged colonel who doggedly pursues Amir, is rather undercooked ... For all that, there are many passages in What Strange Paradise that startle and are hard to forget ... This is truly a timely, unconsoling book.
... powerful ... a harrowing read—there are scenes aboard the boat, even before the storm that capsizes it, which are almost too intense to bear—but leavened with an unexpected sense of hope ... an immediate, visceral reading experience. El Akkad offers no easy answers, save the reminder of our common humanity and the importance of the simplicity of right and wrong. And that is, truly, more than enough.
El Akkad...expertly contrasts the well-paced story of Amir’s predicament with the ill-fated voyage that brought him to Greece. The ragtag bunch of strangers on the boat forms an incredibly well-drawn portrait of humanity as everyone bonds together initially, even with dollops of humor thrown in ... A suspenseful and heartbreaking painting of the refugee crisis as experienced by two children caught in the crosshairs.
El Akkad's compelling, poetic prose captures the precarity and desperation of people pushed to the brink, and the wide-ranging dialogue levels frequently trenchant critiques...even as it produces a few admittedly didactic monologues ... This is an equally incisive, if more conventional, novel than the author's debut, American War (2017) ... A compassionate snapshot of one Syrian refugee's struggle to plot a course for home.
... a stirring if straightforward account of a young boy’s flight from Syria during the country’s civil war ... a moving if somewhat predictable story of survival and the need for compassion and camaraderie across languages, cultures, religions, and borders. While readers may find themselves wishing for more complexity, there is plenty of moral clarity.