Book Review - What Strange Paradise

In his debut novel American War, Cairo-born, Canadian writer Omar El Akkad imagined a polarised United States, devastated by climate change and war. His second novel focuses on Europe and its increasingly divided response to the desperate people who arrive on its southern shores by boat, often without papers. El Akkad recognises that many who make the perilous journey by sea do so as a last resort and What Strange Paradise offers a powerful indictment of the west’s treatment of vulnerable, often traumatised, refugees.

The novel opens with the clean up operation following another shipwreck on an unnamed Greek island — all passengers presumed dead. However, an eight or nine-year-old Syrian boy, Amir, has survived. His instinct is to flee into the nearby woods rather than be picked up by the men in their white protective clothing or the army officers patrolling the shores. On the other side he is befriended by Vänna, a 15-year-old girl from the island, who, despite the language barrier, takes Amir under her wing and hides him in her family’s barn.

The narrative is divided into alternate chapters: “Before” describes Amir’s journey and “After”, his arrival on the island. Amir and his family had fled Syria soon after the start of the civil war and settled in Egypt. His stepfather worked as a janitor, but secretly yearned for a better life in Europe. By a cruel twist of fate, Amir unwittingly follows him on to a ferry supposedly bound for Kos. Away from shore, the ship is replaced with a dilapidated fishing boat. The passengers are divided into those who can afford to travel above deck and those who are locked below.

El Akkad describes in spare prose the harrowing journey that, we know, will end in tragedy. Multiple viewpoints include the smugglers who profit from the passengers’ desperation. On the boat, Amir is befriended by a pregnant woman named Umm Ibrahim who has memorised a simple request in English which she repeats like a mantra: “Hello. I am pregnant. I will have baby on April twenty-eight. I need hospital and doctor to have safe baby. Please help.”

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: “These people, they don’t think,” he says. “They don’t plan.”

However, small acts of kindness restore our faith in humanity. When Vänna approaches Nimra, a woman who runs the local refugee camp based in a gymnasium, Amir is terrified of being left in the overcrowded settlement. Breaking all rules, Nimra arranges for a boat to take Amir to the mainland, confident that the Syrian community will help him. The children head to the ferryman’s dock on the tip of the island, pursued by Colonel Kethros, who believes in doing everything by the book. He wants Amir to be “fingerprinted and entered in the system . . . We will do this properly, like civilised people. We will have good form.”

The quiet determination of Vänna to look after her charge, whatever the cost, shines like a beacon in an increasingly dark landscape. Given the hardening EU policies towards refugees, the British government’s determination to make “irregular migration” a criminal offence and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan threatening to displace ever more people, this compassionate novel could not be more timely.

Originally published by the Financial Times