The author of American War returns with a novel about Amir, a Syrian boy who has survived a perilous escape from his war-torn homeland to a small island where he is rescued by Vänna, a teenage girl native to the island. Though Vänna and Amir are complete strangers, though they don't speak a common language, Vänna is determined to do whatever it takes to save the boy.
... 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.