WINNER OF THE 2021 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE
From the widely acclaimed author of American War: a new novel--beautifully written, unrelentingly dramatic, and profoundly moving--that brings the global refugee crisis down to the level of a child's eyes.
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 has 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 Vanna: 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 she and the boy are complete strangers, though they don't speak a common language, she determines to do whatever it takes to save him.
In alternating chapters, we learn the story of the boy's life and how he came to be on the boat; and we follow the girl and boy as they make their way toward 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, it 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.
About the author
- Winner, Scotiabank Giller Prize
OMAR EL AKKAD is the author of American War. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he was raised in Doha, Qatar, until he moved to Canada with his family. He is an award-winning journalist and author who has covered the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanomo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri, and many other of the most important events of the last decade. Formerly of the Globe and Mail, he is the recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting and the Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Canadian Journalists, as well as three National Magazine Award honourable mentions. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Winner of the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize
“[What Strange Paradise] is so gripping a page-turner that its brutal message feels organic and never lecture-ish. Through wisdom imparted by various characters, the reader receives new perspectives; the privileged Western reader in particular is confronted with him-or herself in an uncomfortable way.” —Globe and Mail
"Extraordinary. . . . Told from the point of view of two children, on the ground and at sea, the story so astutely unpacks the us-versus-them dynamics of our divided world that it deserves to be an instant classic. I haven't loved a book this much in a long time." —New York Times Book Review
"Riveting. . . . Nothing I've read before has given me such a visceral sense of the grisly predicament confronted by millions of people expelled from their homes by conflict and climate change. Though What Strange Paradise celebrates a few radical acts of compassion, it does so only by placing those moments of moral courage against a vast ocean of cruelty." —Washington Post
“El Akkad's biggest accomplishment with What Strange Paradise is that it manages to push past political talking points and shocking statistics to rehumanize the discussion about migration on a global scale, and it does so with enough heart to be memorable.” — NPR
“What Strange Paradise is by turns tender and brutal in its truths. It is tremendously written, propulsive as it is expansive as it is granular in its specificities. Omar El Akkad writes with such emotional precision, power, and grace. Here we get the wondrousness of children set in sharp relief against a backdrop of the all too common dehumanization then dismissal of refugees everywhere. The book devastates and uplifts, somehow, and we are not left with hope—that isn’t the point—but asked to witness, to see what is here, with clarity, and with fullness of heart.”
—Tommy Orange, author of There There
“What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad just resuscitated my heart. This novel—following a boy who survives a refugee passage, and a girl whose homeland feels fractured—dares to unite us on the shore of shared human experience, and redefines hope in the face of despair. I want to read this book every single day. I want to live in a world where the beauty of strangers is a heartsong.”
—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Verge
“It is one thing to put a human face on a migrant crisis and another to do so in so compelling a way that a reader simply cannot put your book down. I read this in one sitting, my heart pounding the whole way—in a strange paradise, you might say. Marvelous.”
—Gish Jen, author of The Resisters
“What an imaginative, touching, and necessary novel Omar El Akkad has brought to us. It reminds us of the human stories behind headlines and statistics, and gives us one of the most memorable children characters, whose story adds urgency and poignancy to that ‘awfully big adventure’ stated by Peter Pan.”
—Yiyun Li, author of Must I Go
“Impassioned and richly detailed, What Strange Paradise moves like a thriller and punches like a work of art. With this haunting story of refugees, high seas, sharks and Samaritans, Omar El Akkad continues on his impressive exploration of our contemporary world.”
—Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger and Amnesty
“Great literature about migration should rehumanize the discourse surrounding it. What Strange Paradise does a fantastic job of that. Touching, gritty, and told in a unique voice that places childhood at the center of the discussion, this is a tender, haunting work about refugees everyone should read.”
—NPR, “July Book-Ahead: What We're Excited to Read Next Month”
“Searing, lyrical . . . A beguiling parable of dispossessed peoples and the burning desire for home.”
—Oprah Daily, “18 of the Best Books to Pick Up This July”
“El Akkad. . . expertly contrasts the well-paced story of Amir’s predicament with the ill-fated voyage that brought him to Greece. The ragtag bunch of strangers on the boat forms an incredibly well-drawn portrait of humanity as everyone bonds together initially, even with dollops of humor thrown in . . . A suspenseful and heartbreaking painting of the refugee crisis as experienced by two children caught in the crosshairs.” —Booklist, starred
“El Akkad's compelling, poetic prose captures the precarity and desperation of people pushed to the brink . . . A compassionate snapshot of one Syrian refugee's struggle to plot a course for home.” —Kirkus Reviews
“. . .What Strange Paradise succeeds at what one senses might be El Akkad’s goal — to deepen our engagement with the world around us and with others’ stories.” – Toronto Star
“This extraordinary book carries a message, not of a trite and clichéd hope, but of a greater universal humanism, the terrifying idea that, ultimately, there are no special distinctions among us, that in fact we are all very much in the same boat.” – New York Times
“Indeed, [What Strange Paradise] is simple in the way that novels like The Stranger or Of Mice and Men are: brief, taut, coolly delivered but with seas of emotion swirling beneath.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“El Akkad may have written a bleak fantasy story, but it’s deeply rooted in the visceral, real-life horrors of the ongoing refugee crisis and it’s hard to think of more capable and talented hands to tackle the brutality and humanity of Amir’s plight.” — Interview