What Strange Paradise

What Strange Paradise


More bodies have washed up on the shores of a small island. Another over-filled, ill-equipped, dilapidated ship has sunk under the weight of its too-many passengers: Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, all of them desperate to escape untenable lives in their homelands. And only one had made the passage: nine-year-old Amir, a Syrian boy who has the good fortune to fall into the hands not of the officials, but of Vänna: a teenage girl, native to the island, who lives inside her own sense of homelessness in a place and among people she has come to disdain. And though Vänna and Amir are complete strangers and don’t speak a common language, Vänna determines to do whatever it takes to save him.

In alternating chapters, we learn the story of Amir’s life and of how he came to be on the boat; and we follow the duo as they make their way towards a vision of safety. But as the novel unfurls, we begin to understand that this is not merely the story of two children finding their way through a hostile world. Omar El Akkad's What Strange Paradise is the story of our collective moment in this time: of empathy and indifference, of hope and despair – and of the way each of those things can blind us to reality, or guide us to a better one.

Our Review

"The child lies on the shore. All around him the beach is littered with the wreckage of the boat and the wreckage of it's passengers."

So begins What Strange Paradise a relentlessly thought-provoking new book by Omar El Akkad.

Amir is the sole survivor of a ship filled wtth refugess which was wrecked on the shore of an unnamed Island. Amir has already faced so much in his young life and now he finds himself alone in a hostile new place where he doesn't know the language. 

Vanna is a fifteen year old girl who has lived on the island her whole life and feels like an outsider even within her own family. When she encounters Amir she feels the need to help him despite the fact they have no common language. 

Many of the adults on the island view the wreckages as an inconvenience at best and have stopped seeing the bodies as people. 

"In the last year it has happened with such frequency that many of the nations on whose tourism the islands economy depends have issued travel advisories. The hotels, and resorts, in turn have offerred discounts. Between them, the coast guard and the morgue keep a partial count of the dead, and as of this morning it stands at 1,026 but this number is as much an abstraction as the dead themselves are to the people who live here, to whom all the shipwrecks of the previous year are a single shipwreck, all the bodies a single body." 

There were several passages in this eye-opening book that will stay with me for a long time after finishing the book:

"And when you finally get over there to the promised land, and you see how those dignified, civilised Westerners treat you - when you find out what they expect of you is to live your whole life like a dog under their dinner table - I'll wait for you to come find me to apologise . 

You think the black market is bad Brother, wait till you see the white market." 

With the recent events in Afghanistan this final quote has been on my mind a lot in the last few days and should serve as a reminder that empathy for refuges shouldn't just be a temporary thing. 

"You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief, they will march on the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will as though you never existed." 

A must read book.

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Our Rating

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