On page 96 of Omar El Akkad’s second novel, “What Strange Paradise,” he writes, “Some of these people, you have to hold their hand and show them how to be human.”
Through main characters 15-year-old Vänna and 9-year-old Amir, El Akkad addresses the migrant crisis, what it means to be human and what it means to be humane in the July release.
In the book, Syrian youth Amir accidentally ends up on a migrant transport boat headed from Egypt to the Greek island, Kos. He is chased by border police once on the island — the lone survivor of the journey — and evades capture with the help of island teen Vänna.
Readers can tell El Akkad is trained as a journalist. His prose is skillful and succinct, the introductions to each chapter read like newspaper leads and his observational style makes readers question whether the story is fictional or reported.
“What Strange Paradise” is emotive and provoking. A timely release given the prevalence of migrant crises across the globe, El Akkad uses his talent to focus on the big picture through the lenses of individuals, namely children, adding faces to an issue which is frequently accompanied by high emotions and political arguments.
He masterfully uses contrasts to steer readers toward the themes of the book. He shows the importance of empathy by pointing to the lack of it — a native islander states “these people, they don’t think,” when seeing the aftermath of a crashed migrant boat. El Akkad acknowledges the disparity between groups, beginning the story with a sketch of “the wreckage of the boat and the wreckage of its passengers: shards of decking, knapsacks cleaved and gutted, bodies frozen in unnatural contortion,” while “in the distance, the island, the colored lights, the music” prevail.
The contrast El Akkad uses to paint his chosen themes also extends to his characters.
Readers watch as Colonel Dimitri Kethros, an old friend of Vänna’s mother and the island’s leading immigration official, tracks Amir across Kos. He’s constructed as a hard, once-noble-turned-bitter man on the hunt for a scared boy. In a novel of only 235 pages, every word, punctuation mark, inclusion and omission is done with intention, which makes the inclusion of a scene where Kethros saves a young girl from drowning all the more fascinating.
By your second meeting with Kethros, you’re rooting against him, but El Akkad’s impeccable acknowledgement of the complexity of human character allows readers to say “but I thought ...” as they watch Kethros save one child while he hunts another.
An odyssey upturned, “What Strange Paradise” begins to unpack the ideas surrounding migration, childhood and morality. El Akkad’s latest story is both heartening and funereal, and it will live in readers' minds well after they close the cover.