A little boy washed up on an alien shore. A teenage girl lonely and unloved in a house on a hill. Can she save him from monsters?
Such is the premise, in one sense, of Omar El Akkad’s second novel, What Strange Paradise. It has fairy tale bones—children in dangerous situations, helping each other, facing enemies and finding helpers. But El Akkad’s novel is no fantasy. The girl in the story, Vänna, lives on a small Greek island with an ineffectual father, a distant mother, and the tourists that prop up the economy from its most recent collapse. The boy, Amir, fled with his family from Syria’s drought and civil war only to find himself crammed with a hundred other people on a doomed boat making for the European continent. What Strange Paradise has fairy tale foundations, but also real world origins.
I heard El Akkad speak recently and he said that the book sparked in 2015 after the death of three-year-old Aylan, a Syrian refugee whose body was found and photographed on a Greek beach, caused an international outcry that … quickly faded and led to essentially nothing. Mix that terrible question mark with a bit of Peter Pan—the story of a boy that never grows up, itself sparked by the early death of author J. M. Barrie’s brother—and you get a novel that brings a big, vague thing—”The Syrian Refugee Crisis”—to the level of a child’s eyes.
In addition to being a novelist, El Akkad is a journalist. And he draws on that training in What Strange Paradise. The novel toggles chapters between “Before,” the story of Amir before washing up on that fateful beach, and “After,” the story of Amir and Vänna trying to keep him from capture by Greek soldiers, led by the menacing Colonel Kethros. The novel echoes with the kinds of details one finds in long-form journalism, from the affluent tourists at the island’s resorts, nods to Greece’s financial crisis, and, most notably, the experience of refugees on a boat risking everything, including life itself, for the whisper of a better life.
But then El Akkad uses the magic of fiction to do something that journalism cannot, something magical that I struggle to put my finger on. Because surely journalism can be propulsive, as this novel is, making you want to know what happens next. And certainly journalism can bring to life people and their stories, making you care about them. But what fiction offers in this context is something akin to a wish. Because the novel and its characters are made-up, I and you and all the readers turn each page filled with the unspoken hope that everything will be okay for these characters, these protagonists. Reading this novel made me realize that we read such works because, in our secret heart of hearts, we understand that fiction need not adhere to what would actually happen, and that draws us in. It brings into the light the desire for a different outcome than the “truth” but then also interrogates that desire. What does it mean to recognize that I wish the story of a Syrian child washed up on a Greek beach ended differently than it did? What do I, and what do we, do with that revelation?
What Strange Paradise is an absolutely, gob-smackingly fantastic novel. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Like his first novel, American War, What Strange Paradise shows El Akkad as a writer exploring hard truths with a scientist’s realism and a saint’s heart.