Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

cover of American War by Omar El Akkad and quote: ‘What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else's home?’

How can one accurately categorize a great debut novel like American War? One can call it many things, speculative science fiction, dystopian novel, character study, and literary fiction. The world described in this book feels real. It combines elements of what war looks like today with problems like global warming and its consequences. It is a novel with a sobering impact, brutal and honest.

Great debut book about war

…Imagine a future world similar to ours in which climate change has reshaped the face of the Earth. Coastal areas are underwater and parts of the world have turned into deserts. These extreme climate changes forces people in some parts of the world live underground due to unbearable temperatures.

…Imagine a world in which energy crisis prompted a ban on fossil fuel, a world turning to solar energy.

…Imagine a world in which energy crisis prompted a ban on fossil fuel, a world turning to solar energy.

…Imagine a world in which America has lost its dominant position over the world. It is an America plagued by a 2nd Civil War.

…Imagine a world in which America is dependent on foreign aid. The citizens of the Southern states are living in large refugee camps.

‘Nativism being a pyramid scheme, I found myself contemptuous of the refugees’ presence in a city already overburdened. At the foot of the docks, we yelled at them to go home, even though we knew home to be a pestilence field. We carried signs calling them terrorists and criminals and we vandalized the homes that would take them in. It made me feel good to do it, it made me feel rooted; their unbelonging was proof of my belonging.’

In this world the Middle East is the new global superpower. Europeans are emigrating en-masse. Chinese products are highly valued and considered of quality. Americans are fighting their war with suicide bombers and guerrilla bands.

In the American South, the Reds, don’t want to give up the use of fossil fuel. Oil is their main natural resource and main source of revenue. They are clinging to their national identity and Southern Values. The Reds want to secede, they want their independence. But, the North or the Blues, are of course against this and so war breaks out.

‘sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for—be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness—you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather. I’d had enough of all that. You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.’

What an amazing premise, turning our world upside down.

At the center of this cautionary tale, we have a southern family, the Chestnuts. The Chestnuts live in poverty but survive until the father, the family’s breadwinner, is killed. They then flee to a refugee camp. Most of the novel takes place in this camp.

Sarat, the unlikeable main character

The main character is Sarat, one of the three Chestnut children. She is set apart from the very beginning. She is a tomboy who doesn’t really fit into any preset mold. She grows up to become one of the most hateful, violent, prejudiced and close-minded person ever. To say that I did not gel with her is an understatement.

I’m not a big fan of books with main unlikeable character but I appreciate the ones done well and this is one of them. You see where she’s coming from, how she grew up, and how the long years at a refugee camp formed her. But still, you see many others who make better decisions, others who still turn out decent. She is just so angry, uncompromising, cold, and unforgiving. Throughout this book, Sarat is pushed to the very extremes to which no one should be pushed to. Do these circumstances justify her later deeds? Who should we blame, her or her upbringing\circumstances for how she turned out?

‘And what she understood-what none of the ones who came to touch Simon’s forehead understood-was that the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language. Its native speakers occupied different ends of the world, and the prayers they recited were not the same and the empty superstitions to which they clung so dearly were not the same-and yet they were. War broke them the same way, made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way. In times of peace and good fortune they were nothing alike, but stripped of these things they were kin. The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.’

‘If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to turn you against our people? “No.” Gaines smiled. “Good girl,” he said.’

There are so many questions to ask and so many answers to debate. And as a writer, Omar El Akkad is amazing at being impartial and unprejudiced.

The world building is incredibly rich and the writing is amazing for a debut. At times I felt transplanted into a Mad Max type of world where nothing matters but survival. The examples of historical documents throughout the novel and the maps at the beginning make this world feel real. They give the story depth and authenticity.

Is it worth a read?

The only two problems I had with this book, other than my dislike of the main character, are:

  1. At times it felt too long and I got bored. It could be because of the detailed world building. But also because in the end this is not a plot-centric novel but, as I already mentioned a character study. Because of the interesting premise, I expected more plot development.
  2. I was emotionally disconnected from both the characters and the plot. I can imagine this is done so purposefully. But it’s hard to read a book when you simply don’t care, especially about the characters. The things that happened where brutal and scary. But for some reason, I was not as affected as I normally am when reading about difficult topics.

Overall, amazing book and I would highly recommend it. Looking forward to reading other books from the author.

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