Sunday 26 August 2018

American War, Omar El Akkad

It’s late in the twenty-first century and America is once again in the throes of civil war. It has been wracked by climate change and the free Southern States have refused to give up fossil fuel. The Chestnut family live in a metal shack in a wasteland, terrified of the ever closening war. Benjamin, the father, is killed in a suicide bombing while attempting to organise a way for his family to move to the North. Martina and her three children; Dana, Sarat, and Simon, are forced to move to Camp Patience, a sprawling refugee camp that will be their home for years to come. The book goes on to show the irreversible damage war does to the Chestnut family.

Sarat is the main focus of the text. Tall, tough, and trusting, we see the war gradually break the innocent trust and curiosity she held at the opening. She is radicalized and tortured and commits acts of terrorism that the reader may struggle to reconcile with their desire for a happy ending and admirable protagonist. El Akkad has said that his aim was not to create a likeable or even a sympathetic character in Sarat but for the reader to understand how she came to be the person she becomes. In this he certainly succeeds, and although her actions are at time shocking it feels difficult to entirely condemn her.

Camp Patience has all the hallmarks of the refugee camps we are familiar with hearing about, yet being thrown into the day to day, knowing the characters are there for years, brings home the realities of displacement in war-torn countries, that the struggle continues long after the cameras have gone. El Akkad based the experiences in the novel deeply in fact, both from his time as a journalist and in research for the novel. This is also true of Sugarloaf, the detention centre where atrocious tortures are doled out. Again, he has made nothing up, and the reader knows this, making it all the more harrowing.

With the current problems in America it is easy to read this as a cautionary tale, and yet it was written before Trump announced his intention to run for President. Instead it is concerned with the past and the present and bringing atrocities that people turn a blind eye to into such close proximity that they can’t be ignored. A difficult read that rings true on many levels.

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