What Strange Paradise: A novel

by Omar El Akkad

Paperback, 2022

Call number

FIC ELA (2 copies)



Vintage (2022), 256 pages


"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 Vänna: 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 of 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"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
This is a story of the desperation that migrants endure to escape the tyranny of their homelands to land somewhere in Europe via the Mediterranean. This is the 2021 Giller prize winner and it is well deserved.
There are three main characters Amir, a nine year old boy who washes up on a Greek (??)
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Island; Vanna, a fifteen year old inhabitant of the island who shelters Amir and Colonel Dimitri Kethros who is in charge of overseeing the rescue and detention program for shipwrecked migrants.
The story is well told in chapters titled “Before” and “After” and details Amir’s backstory and that of his companions on the old fishing boat “Calypso”. People are from parts of Syria, Eritrea, Lebanon, Palestine looking for any life which is better than the one they are fleeing and they are at the mercy of human traffickers.
Vanna is a kind teenager with parents so unhappy together because of the 2008 economic crisis that she shelters, feeds and protects Amir until he can safely get to a Syrian refugee camp.
Colonel Kethros is disenchanted with his role in this crisis and wonders at the abilities of his new recruits, the constant onslaught of migrants and how to catch Vanna.
This is a thoughtful exploration of the politics of human trafficking, the hope of desperate migrants and the human kindness displayed by a minority of people
Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Romonko
What a Strange Paradise won the 2021 Giller Prize. After reading this book, I understand how it won this prestigious prize. It is an ultimately devastating story that also depicts hope, empathy, understanding, compassion and also human cruelty and depravity all woven together into a few pages. The
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story is about a little boy tossed off an overcrowded and unsafe immigrant fishing boat into a stormy sea. By some miracle he is pushed to the shore by the waves, and manages to survive where at least 100 other people didn't. Alone, frightened and unable to understand the language, Amir finds his way to a remote house and a girl by the name of Vanna who decides she will save this one small boy at all costs. Vanna and Amir run off together looking for a safe place to hide on a small island that doesn't have much to offer in the way of shelter. Throughout the book, I knew that the story was not going to end well, but I didn't realize how devastating the ending would be. But at the same time, the book illustrated the strength of human character and our determination to find freedom at all costs. The book hit uncomfortably close to home at this time because of what is occurring in our world today. For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a place of safety, we should give thanks every day for that privilege.
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LibraryThing member mdoris
This is quite the suspenseful novel about a young Syrian boy's escape from a failing migrant ship heading towards Greece and then his experience there rescued by a local girl. It is written by the same author of American War. It sure puts you in the shoes of terror and fear of the Mediterranean
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crossing on such flimsy and ancient boats. Beware of an unusual end and look forward to beautiful writing;.There is much to think about concerning morality and choice once the book ends.
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LibraryThing member librorumamans
The photo of the tiny body of Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach on Kos in 2015, haunted the world. Inspired by that image, El Akkad has invented Amir, five years older than Alan, whose apparently lifeless body is also found on a beach on Kos. Amir, however, revives, evades the police, and makes his
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way with difficulty to what strange paradise? Beautifully written and enigmatic, the novel demands that its readers, especially its comfortable, white, European or North American readers, wrestle with some hard questions.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
Refugee boy washes up on beach, choose your own adventure. Which story do you like, Akkad lets you pick.
LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This book won the Giller Prize for 2021 and, now that I have read it, I can see why. I was completely immersed in this story of a young Syrian boy on a battered boat in the Mediterranean. Against all odds he survived the shipwreck and then evaded capture by the local police on the island where he
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The book is structured so that chapters headed Before and After alternate, starting with an After chapter. Amir wakes up on a beach and when he sees uniformed men approaching him he takes off into the surrounding woods. He is spotted by a local girl, Vanna, coming out of the woods. Vanna hides him in an outbuilding and then sends the police off in another direction. In the Before chapters we learn that Amir, his mother, his stepfather (also his uncle) and his stepbrother left Syria and found refuge in Alexandria in Egypt. Amir's father and another uncle disappeared when they took part in a demonstration against the Syrian government. Amir learns that his uncle/stepfather has plans to go out late one night and he follows him all the way to the harbour. His uncle gets on board a boat with at least another 100 people of all different nationalities but with the wish to get to Europe and safety in common. Amir follows him to the ship and the gate-keeper lets him board even though his passage has not been pair. There is an implication that Amir will work off his passge in other ways which I took to mean that he would be made a prostitute. Fortunately his uncle comes up with enough money for a passage on the lower deck which he himself takes leaving Amir on the upper deck. The boat that leaves the Alexandrian harbour is soon exchanged for an old fishing boat and all the boat crew return to the original ship. They leave a pair of Eritreans in charge of piloting the ship, with instructions to just keep the compass needle on North. The ride on the boat is horrendous and probably completely accurate. As they get close to the island the boat capsizes and everyone is thrown into the water. On the island the police are trying to put all refugees in a detention centre. The woman in charge of the centre tells Vanna to take Amir to the tip of the island where there will be someone to take Amir to the mainland. On the mainland people from his own country will take him in. So Vanna, only a teenager, takes on the task of getting Amir safely there. The commanding officer, a former soldier who lost part of his leg while on a peace-keeping mission, is determined to catch them.

The author has said in several interviews that he structured the book as a fable. There is a clue to this right on the first page where one of the epigraphs is from Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie: "I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be?" Viewed as a retelling of Peter Pan gives this book a whole new meaning for me. Perhaps if I had read those interviews before I finished the book the ending would not have come as such a surprise. Don't say I didn't warn you.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
This is a story about a young boys journey. The narrative is devided into "Before" and "After" . Before takes place on a boat with Amir and his uncle migrating from an unnamed island to an unnamed mainland. The after portion takes place after the boat sinks and the boy must depend on others to
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survive. The novel is well written with undertones of Arabic anti Western criticism that pervades the story. The characters seem to want to go to the West but hate much of what it stands for.
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LibraryThing member icolford
The refugee crisis has touched all of us. Without a doubt, the sight of hundreds of bodies washing ashore from yet another failed attempt to exchange the mindless destruction of armed conflict for a new life elsewhere leaves only the most cynical and hard-hearted unmoved. Omar El Akkad’s short,
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potent novel What Strange Paradise chronicles one such journey: that of nine-year-old Syrian refugee Amir Utu, who follows his uncle aboard a fishing vessel about to set sail north from the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Amir’s act is rash and impulsive, and once on board he is initially unable to grasp the gravity of the situation. His fellow travelers are desperate, possibly dangerous, and, in at least one case, not above unprincipled, amoral behaviour. Later, on the island, Amir, the sole survivor after the boat founders in rough coastal waters, instinctively flees the soldiers patrolling the beach and disappears into the forest. He is pursued—since he is on the island illegally and has no rights he will be incarcerated in a refugee camp and probably deported. But Amir hides and is discovered by 15-year-old Vänna, who quickly sizes up the situation when she spots the soldiers, and conceals Amir in the barn behind the house where she lives. El Akkad’s rapid-fire, deftly plotted narrative takes place in a world of clashing moralities and cultures at cross-purposes. Vänna, driven by compassion and precociously sensitive to the injustices of adult society, risks everything in order to protect the boy from forces she believes are out to do him harm. The world of international law and pragmatic duty is represented by Colonel Kethros, commander of the military detachment charged with maintaining order on the island and who, for reasons of his own, pursues Amir and Vänna with single-minded, ruthless zeal. The story ends with an ambiguous coda, and we’re left wondering what really happened, who survived and who didn’t. What Strange Paradise presents an individual instance of suffering and striving against enormous odds, and tells a painful and necessary tale with its eyes wide open. Essential reading.
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LibraryThing member modioperandi
Omar El Akkad give us a glimpse through the eyes of nine year old Amir, who escapes with his family from Syria to Egypt and then unknowingly ends up on a boat that leaves him on an unnamed island. This timely novel raises many questions about the current refugee crisis in the world, about the moral
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issues we face as human beings. A haunting and affecting beautifully written novel.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
What a powerful novel!

This is the story of Amir Utu, a nine-year-old Syrian boy who arrives on a Greek island where he is pursued by Colonel Dimitri Kethros and helped by a teenaged girl named Vanna. The story is told in alternating sections called Before and After. In the Before story, we learn
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about Amir's flight, with his mother, stepfather/uncle and half-brother from Syria to Egypt, and how Amir and his uncle end up on a crowded, rickety ship headed north.

The After story starts when the boat has sunk and bodies of refugees wash up on the beach. Amir is the only survivor. Colonel Kethros is charged with handling refugees, which means detaining them in crowded camps. He is determined to capture Amir, even as he becomes increasingly disillusioned about his work. Vanna sees Amir running from the soldiers and hides him. She is determined to get him to safety in an established Muslim community on another island.

The writing is excellent. The author has said in interviews that he modeled the story partly on Peter Pan, and the final chapter. Now, will shock you.

Powerful story of determination, longing for a safe and simple life. A story of when doing right means breaking rules. A story of hope and of despair.
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LibraryThing member janismack
Story of Amir, a nine year old buy who survives a boat crash that hold migrants escaping their lives back in their homelands. He is helped by a teenage girl, Vanna who also experiences homelessness among people she has learned to disdain. Difficult read but worth it.
LibraryThing member lesleynicol
Although it did notnot end in the way we wanted, I thought reading this story was well worthwhile.
The book which explores the global refugee crisis does not leave the reader unaffected.
LibraryThing member reader1009
audio fiction (6.5 hrs)
LibraryThing member janerawoof
Sad. Sometimes tender, sometimes brutal. Food for thought. The plight of the current refugees as told through the eyes of a child, before, during and after his departure from his homeland. The help an Islander [another child] gives him to run from the authorities, in the person of an army colonel.
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The story is told in alternating chapters, Before and also After the boy's flight from his war-torn country.
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LibraryThing member srms.reads
4.5/5 rounded down.
While reading this story I could not help think of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body was found washed up on a beach in Turkey back in 2015 having drowned somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea while fleeing Syria. His story made the headlines and the picture of that beautiful
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little boy lying lifeless on a beach made the whole world sit up and take note of the plight and treatment of refugees and asylum seekers across the world.

Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise is a story written along those lines. At the onset of the novel we meet Amir Utu, an eight-year-old Syrian refugee - the sole survivor of a shipwrecked boat carrying refugees to the intended destination of the island of Kos. Amir, in a semiconscious state, is found with the bodies of his deceased fellow passengers, washed up on the shores of an island in the Mediterranean. The island is depicted as a vacation destination of choice for international tourists. However, the influx of refugees seeking asylum, shipwrecks and tragedies similar to this one have also attracted much attention in the media.

“Between them, the coast guard and the morgue keep a partial count of the dead, and as of this morning it stands at 1,026 but this number is as much an abstraction as the dead themselves are to the people who live here, to whom all the shipwrecks of the previous year are a single shipwreck, all the bodies a single body.”

The narrative is split across two timelines – generically titled “Before” and “After”. The former traces the events that lead to Amir being washed ashore. We get to know the details of Amir’s family and how he got to be on that boat. We also meet some of his fellow passengers and are privy to their stories and aspirations. While they look for a better life in the West, they are not completely ignorant of the reality of their situation and how they, as refugees, are regarded in a foreign land. In the “After” timeline , we find Amir running from Colonel Dimitri Kethros and his officers who are tasked with rounding up the illegals and processing them through regulated refugee camps, the living conditions in which leave a lot to be desired. While on the run , he ends up near the home of Vanna Hermes, a young girl of fifteen, who takes it upon herself to keep him safe and help him in whatever way possible. Vanna and Amir might not speak the same language but they do communicate with each other through broken words, non-verbal cues, their hearts and humanity. When I say that this is an emotional read, I mean that as a reader you will feel a lot. In my case, I alternated between feelings of anger, frustration, shock and sorrow.
“But you can’t bet your future on work that requires the coming together of people, not now, not with the world the way it is. The days of people coming together are ending; this is a time for coming apart.”

What I found impressive about Omar El Ekkad’s style of writing is that he does not force emotions on the reader. In fact, at times the narrative comes across as factual and detached, especially in the scenes on the boat. The conversations are simply the exchange of dialogue. The events are described just as they happen. The author tells a story and gives the readers space to feel what they need to feel instead of going heavy on melodrama. This is not an entertaining or enjoyable read- the subject matter does not allow it to be. It is, however, hard-hitting and thought-provoking. The prose is straightforward and beautiful and I applaud the author’s restrained tone in narrating a story that revolves around a sensitive, controversial and polarizing issue. I commend the author for humanizing the issue and not overly politicizing it. We see the stark contrasts that define the refugee crisis -brutality and kindness, hope and despair, humanitarianism and political agenda, xenophobia and asylum, cynicism and innocence. The final chapter titled “Now” might change the way you feel about the book but ultimately this is a very well-written and relevant story that will leave a lasting impression.

“You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.”
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LibraryThing member Dabble58
The story of a shipwrecked group of refugees told from the point of view of the child who survived and the girl who helps him. The tale pulls you right along, cheering for Amir and Vanna, wanting them to make it to safety. The casual heartlessness of the tourists in the area who demand to
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know when the beach will reopen after the bodies are swept up, the inhumanity of people forced into intolerable conditions, and the shining goodness of those who reach to help are all portrayed in such a way that we are there, shivering with them.
And then, the last chapter, well, it brings it all home, slaps us upside the head, makes us feel vaguely guilty for enjoying such a story, when the reality is so harsh.
Omar El Akkad is not letting us off with a simple “wow, good book!” Instead he brings a call to action, or for those of us with no power, a wash of regret at our ineptitude. How can we stop this cruelty from happening? How do we step up, be the people we need to be to respect ourselves, to do good, be a force for good?
Thought provoking, and high residue. It will play in my mind for quite a while.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
In September 2015, the world was horrified by the image of 2-year-old Alan Kurdi, a refugee from the war in Syria, washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey. Of course, that photo seems to have done little to encourage wealthier nations to open their borders to refugees or address
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the sociopolitical and climate crises causing the refugee crisis. What Strange Paradise begins with a similar image of bodies washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Kos where the locals see the refugees as harmful to their tourist economy. The only survivor is a 9-year-old Syrian boy, Amir Utu, who is protected from the authorities by a 15-year-old Greek girl Vänna Hermes.

Alternate chapters narrate the story before and after the shipwreck. In the "before" story, Amir inadvertently follows his “Quiet Uncle” Younis aboard a ship smuggling refugees to Europe. Amir ends up with the better-off passengers on the deck, while Younis is forced below decks. Amir gets to know the other people on the ship including the crew of smugglers who know little about operating and maintaining the ship (and charge extra for life vests), as well as other passengers who share their dreams of a better life. In the "after" story, Vänna helps Amir find clothes and food and tries to get him to ship that takes migrants to the safety a mainland refugee camp all the while avoiding the military lead by Colonel Kethros who is determined to catch Amir.

It's a book that's heartbreaking and enraging rooted in contemporary events. The structure of the novel is interesting and I found myself hoping against hope rooting for Amir and Vänna to succeed.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Yes, another immigration story. This one is quite powerful, aided by an excellent reader of the audio edition. The story is told from two angles, pre- and post- shipwreck. The main character is a child, who is completely oblivious to the reason for boarding the ship, who does not know the intended
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destination, and is completely at the mercy of people who do not speak his language. Characters include the disillusioned boat captain, the child's Little Uncle, the young defiant girl who desperately tries to get the child to the next ferry, and the weary, disillusioned colonel who relentlessly does his duty despite misgivings. The story is so well written that as the reader, I felt anguish and deep frustration at the lack of accurate information on both sides of the immigration story. The one imperative the boy holds onto is to survive.A very good listen!
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LibraryThing member LibraryCin
Amir is a 9-year old Syrian boy who survives a shipwreck. Everyone else to be seen has washed up on shore, dead. He is on an island, but doesn’t know where he is, nor does he understand the language. When two men see him and point and shout, Amir gets scared and runs. He runs into Vanna, 15-years
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old and though they are unable to communicate verbally, she hides him.

The story then shifts to “Before”, which brings us up to date on how Amir got where he is. We go back and forth between Amir’s before and “After”. Much of after is told from Vanna’s POV, but occasionally we switch to the POV of a colonial who is dead set on finding Amir, the little boy who ran away.

Given that it’s (primarily) from a 9-year old’s POV, it took a bit to figure out what was going on through much of the story. I am still not sure I understand the ending. But it was a “good” (powerful) story, even so.
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Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 2023)
Scotiabank Giller Prize (Winner — 2021)
Oregon Book Awards (Winner — 2022)
Aspen Words Literary Prize (Longlist — 2022)
Canada Reads (Nominee — 2022)
BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — Fiction — 2022)
Globe and Mail Top 100 Book (Fiction — 2021)




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