I am a book reader because I love to escape and imagine the lives of others. Books are a way to touch lives that I would never be able to reach in my limited, brief time here on Earth. I have spent my 40 something years here mostly in the United States, post colonialism and legal slavery, with access to the Internet at my fingertips for the half of my life that seems most relevant to me now. With all the luck that brought me here, to this life in this world right now, it feels small to admit that in my day to day life, I can often be so overwhelmed by the things that I am doing that I forget to consider what life is also life, for so many others, in this same right here, right now. I will never know personally what it is like to be a child fleeing from violence directly into the arms of an uncaring world. I cannot know and experience that for myself, but I can read about that experience. And maybe, if I open myself up to it, maybe reading about that experience might help me understand someone else in this world a bit better. I have no idea what to do with that most of the time – as other readers, what do you do? What can we do after we read something so powerful, besides allow ourselves to be changed by the knowing?
What I’m saying is this book transports you, and now that I’m back in my world, writing about this book on a Sunday morning with my coffee and bagel, the next book in my TBR pile beckoning, I feel there’s still a part of me in the “strange paradise” Omar El Akkad has created with his words. We can turn off CNN when they talk about “the refugee crisis”, we can look away, but El Akkad brings us back and uses the power of fiction to ask us to really consider the people impacted by war – and the hegemony of the Western world.
This poignant novel tells the story of Amir Utu, a young boy from Syria whose life has recently entailed near constant fleeing. First his family is relocated from Homs to Damascus after their home is destroyed by bombs. From there, they travel to Alexandria in an attempt to start a new life. Amir’s father has died, and his mother has remarried his uncle (known to Amir as Quiet Uncle, for his timid approach to life). One day Amir follows his uncle and winds up on a boat with people of various nationalities, traveling towards the West. I’m recapping this in a linear fashion, but the far more talented author opts to alternate chapters between Before and After – because, in the first chapter, what we learn is that the boat has crashed onto the shore of an island outside of Greece. This island caters to wealthy people from Western nations, tourists whose money might fuel the economy but also drains the existing culture from the island. Before chapters give context to how Amir ends up on the boat, and what he experiences as the boat travels across the sea before its inevitable demise. After chapters detail what happens when Amir opens his eyes on the island.
Amir is helped by Vanna, a teenage girl on the island who stumbles across Amir and is moved to help him find safety. Together, they evade the authorities, whose “help” they feel certain would only lead to further suffering. They do not speak the same language, but they find a universal understanding in communicating their mutual need to see Amir to safety, such as they can find it.
This books speaks to who we feel deserves pity (connected to what we think of as kindness – but, as a character in this novel observes, what is a prerequisite for kindness? Can someone with less power be seen to be offering “kindness”?). It also speaks to who we feel deserves protection, who is worthy of help. The writing itself in this novel is spare, mostly conversations between passengers on the boat in the “Before” sections – but these are full of gutting observations. In later chapters, the After section ratchets up the action just a bit, propelling the novel towards a very compelling ending.
I’d really like to talk spoilers, because the last chapter of the book sort of blew the whole thing wide open for me and made me reconsider the title. I’m not entirely certain how to post a spoiler in a review so I’ll avoid that for now – but, should anyone feel like further discussing this novel after reading it, please do let me know. For this review I’ll say that the ending was powerful and leave it at that.
I recommend this book – but also, be aware that it is not “light” reading. It’s not the right book for your beach vacation, certainly. It’s a novel that will make you feel the writer’s anger about global inequalities and experience that alongside him. I don’t think I have much of a choice except to move forward – we all must keep living our lives – but also, I very much have the choice to let this book change me, and I hope that I am able to return to that as often as I need to. We can and we must make choices that help make the world safer for all of us, in whatever ways we have the power to do that.