The opening line of Omar El Akkad’s new novel, What Strange Paradise, flashes an image from the year 2015 before the mind’s eye. It is an image that brings the plight of migrant refugees—escaping their untenable present in the face of war back home and in search of a stable and better future far away—to center stage. “The child lies on the shore,” writes El Akkad, taking the reader back to the Greek island of Kos, where memories of a drowned 3-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, lie buried, only to come alive again when we learn of a similar tragedy .
Omar presents a brutally honest account of the impact of conflict and war on ordinary human lives. The story his book sets out to tell is that of human suffering, the desire to survive, and the intense wish for a better life in a new land. Through his characters, Omar delves into the complexity of the unpredictable relationships between refugees and the host society, an arrangement that is often hostile and rarely compassionate, but the newcomers encounter both.
Straddling the two extremities of hostility and compassion is the story of a relationship between Amir, a 9-year-old Syrian boy, the sole survivor of a migrant shipwreck, and Vänna Hermes, a 15-year-old resident of an unnamed Mediterranean island, where Amir has washed up on the shore. The story begins with Amir waking up on the beach littered with wreckage of the boat and drowned passengers, his face caked with sand. Scared and alone, he gets up and runs from the uniformed men who sprint after him, toward some sheltering trees, only to emerge later “haggard and panting” in front of Vänna, who instantly feels that the boy is in danger and takes him in.
The chapters in the book are structured in two time frames—“Before” and “After”—the former covering the sequence of events that led Amir to the island and the latter relating his journey upon washing ashore. Amir’s arrival is the fulcrum of the two narratives that appear alternatively throughout the novel—one part on the Calypso, the small fishing boat overloaded with passengers and the other spent with the kindly Vänna.
A defense of immigration in literary form, the book attempts to humanize the refugee ‘other’ as it presents the precarious life of being a migrant in turbulent waters and beyond. Omar captures the predicament of the displaced and stateless subject and the uncertainty that is woven into the person’s very existence. This element of the struggle for survival takes us back to Omar’s past work, American War, published in 2017, which grapples with the uncertainty that comes with conflict and contestation over resources amid the challenges of climate change and epidemics. American War is set in 2074 America, which is torn by the “Second” American Civil War, during which five Southern states of the American federation decide to secede over the passage of a bill that bans the use of fossil fuels across the country. The situation is further augmented by the outbreak of a deadly virus and the invasion of Texas by Mexico. Through the story of the Chestnut family, who are living in a refugee camp, Omar transforms a geopolitical concept into fiction and tells the story of war-induced ruin that befalls people caught in the middle of a political and climate crisis.
A similar kind of devastation and destruction comes to life in What Strange Paradise as it gathers pace. Vänna is seen ushering Amir into a farmhouse that is at the edge of her family’s property. This is the hiding place she designates for Amir to find refuge, and she begins to stitch her emotional wounds while keeping him safe. We learn that she is a child of a dysfunctional family with recurring fights between her parents, the “indecently intimate strangers.” As she grew up, she became cognizant of the weaponized emptiness that existed between her parents. Estranged from her family, Vänna creates a bond with Amir. It was instantaneous when they met. They expressed a kind of relief on first seeing each other, transcending the barrier of language that existed between them.
Vänna fetches food for Amir, but then decides to take him to her erstwhile teacher, Madame Nimra El Ward, who runs the island’s “hastily built migrant camp,” where “children can’t sleep through the night, people don’t talk anymore, and many try to slit their wrist with canned-food lids.” Given the abysmal conditions she faces, Madame plans a rescue trip for Amir and hands over a backpack full of picture translation books, fairy tales, and comic books to keep the boy occupied through the journey. Madame El Ward directs Vänna to keep Amir in hiding for two days until they reach the northeastern end of the island near a broken lighthouse where a “ferryman [will] sail Amir to the place where he will find his community of people from the same place he came from.”
Despite her young age and inexperience, Vänna assumes the role of Amir’s protector as they set off on this perilous mission. They are pursued by the thumping boots of a police and the military presence, but the horror of their flight is kept at bay by their shared innocence and kindness, which provide a model for the caring generosity we would wish to see extended to the marginal.
Set against this fantasy backdrop of fragility and pursuit, Omar’s book sketches a bewitching portrait of the child Amir. It paints a child’s vision of the world, a world that he inhabits as a refugee, losing his freedom and agency while the world, distant and indifferent to his suffering, decides his fate. In painting this picture, the author brings together the macabre and the magical, producing an imagery of loss and recovery, abandonment and acceptance through relationships that are outside of blood kinship and are random and circumstantial.
What is unique is the comforting proximity and tenderness that the two wounded souls share with each other. On their way to the escape ship, while hiding in a cave, Vänna notices Amir’s discomfort as he continuously fidgets because of some irritation on his body. As she removes his shirt, she sees the growing wounds on his back and shoulders from prolonged exposure to the sun. Vänna gently treats his injuries as Amir tries to conserve his strength.
The novel ends leaving behind some deep impressions of human relationships in a setting of a global humanitarian crisis. What is tragic about this story is that it reflects the short lived nature of outrage, which dies as soon as the lens of the media shifts away to another front-page global issue. As I was writing the review of this book, I received a notification in my inbox—news of a boat with dead bodies washing up in the Caribbean from Africa—that makes me question complicity through silence, negligence, and reduction of the whole issue to mere statistics or nationalism. What Omar achieves with his novel is to make the reader understand the urgency of the refugee crisis. His work speaks to the global citizen, helping to create a sense of empathy and compassion for the most vulnerable and bruised selves.