"It was, in the end, hopeless work, the letters almost always doomed to fail. But for refugees who paid or begged Martina to write these pleadings on their behalf, hopelessness was no impediment to hope." - Omar El Akkad, American War
Do you ever read a book and wish you’d written it? Something about the storyline is so special that you want to be a part of it – you want to understand the inspiration behind it and the characters more than you ever could by just reading it.
I’ve only ever read a few books like this. One is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (I haven’t reviewed it on my site because I read it years ago, but I implore you to read it), and another is The Honey Farm by Harriet Alida Lye, which I reviewed recently (read the review here).
American War falls into this category – the books that are more than just a casual summer read, the books that stay with you for long after you’ve finished turning the pages. These books are ethereal and stunningly written, they’re atmospheric and overwhelming. They are exactly the kind of books that I hope to write someday.
After reading only 16 pages, I couldn’t believe this was Omar El Akkad’s first novel. An Egyptian-Canada journalist, El Akkad spent years working for The Globe and Mail. He covered the war in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, and it’s clear from American War that what he wrote about stayed with him long after it was over.
American War is about a young girl’s experiences in the Second Civil War in the United States. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas have seceded from the Union, and the South has been largely destroyed by fighting. Florida is underwater, South Carolina is quarantined because of a virus attack, the Middle East has been evacuated because of rising temperatures, and revolution has changed the border-lines of many countries in the world. It’s not a post-apocalyptic book, but it’s one that feels more real and relevant because it’s so believable.
Sarat Chestnut, the book’s main character, is in many ways an anomaly, especially for a female protagonist in a book. A Southerner by birth, she suffers unimaginably throughout the war, and the choices she makes as the fighting rages on are enough to make the reader question if she is good or evil. The problem is that in war, the lines between good and evil are nuanced— if not invisible. The Northern states commit horrendous acts of violence, and, blinded by all that she has lost, Sarat retaliates in the only ways she knows how.
American War is a story of loss, but also of family and love and hope. It’s not a happy book. Don’t expect to come away from it feeling jolly and light. You won’t. That much I can promise. But you will come away with a better understanding of conflict and how difficult it is to tell who is in the wrong and who is in the right.
The style El Akkad chose for the book is perfect. It is told in alternating views between Sarat’s nephew – who is now a respected historian who knows a great deal about the war – and news articles and primary documents collected about the conflict. The “primary documents” aren’t cheesy or confusing. They actually make the story feel more real.
For me, the greatest achievement in the book is how the author deals with the passage of time. One relatively short passage covers seven years, and other time gaps are not accounted for at all. But being able to watch the characters grow from small children who don't understand war into adults who have fought in our is so powerful. It's the only way to really demonstrate the problems and ideas at the heart of the story.
This book is an absolute literary triumph. It's beautifully, hauntingly written, and it's unique and bold as well. It will make you uncomfortable, and that's why it's so worth reading.
If you liked this you might also like:
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy