A dystopian novel about a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.
[American War] is proof of the premise that while philosophy can urge contemplation, it is fiction that can lure us into compassion ... The world of American War is a prophetic one, with loss and privation and conflict the cornerstones. It is also a compelling one, the warp and weft of its details constructing a universe whose internal logic is as convincing as any real-world account. All of it can be chalked up to Akkad’s mastery of detail, his depiction of an ecological collapse hastening the end of human compassion, filial feeling, normalcy, beauty, and possibility ... It’s a species of fear we could do with more of right now.
...a surprisingly powerful novel — one that creates as haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in The Road (2006), and as devastating a look at the fallout that national events have on an American family as Philip Roth did in The Plot Against America (2004) ... His familiarity with the United States’ war on terror informs this novel on every level, from his shattering descriptions of the torture endured by one of his main characters to his bone-deep understanding of the costs of war on civilians ... There are considerable flaws in American War — from badly melodramatic dialogue to highly contrived and derivative plot points — but El Akkad has so deftly imagined the world his characters inhabit, and writes with such propulsive verve, that the reader can easily overlook such lapses ... El Akkad has written a novel that not only maps the harrowing effects of violence on one woman and her family, but also becomes a disturbing parable about the ruinous consequences of war on ordinary civilians.
The reader grows attached to Sarat and Simon not merely because of their perilous situation but because El Akkad is skilled at capturing the details that make them into real, flesh-and-blood people. Working against this nuance are jumps in time as long as a decade that interrupt the arc of the narrative ... The pacing trucks on at the same steady rate whether there’s action or conversation, while frequent transcripts of diaries, political speeches and journalistic accounts attempt to add more context for the civil war. Most of the time, however, entries like [these] are dishwater dull. These sections also seem oddly beholden to the original Civil War, and not in an illuminating way ... Despite these flaws — which may register to some readers as quibbles — American War is a worthy first novel, thought-provoking, earnest and mostly well-wrought ... El Akkad’s formidable talent is to offer up a stinging rebuke of the distance with which the United States sometimes views current disasters, which are always happening somewhere else. Not this time.