American War (Omar El Akkad)

I can’t stop thinking about this book.  Even though I just finished it last night, and that makes perfect sense, somehow the fact that it’s sitting so vividly in my mind after 24 hours feels meaningful in some way.  This is a beautiful novel about a dirty subject.

american war

American War is a masterwork of speculative fiction.  It examines themes that I’ve spent a great deal of time considering throughout my life, but puts a brand-new spin on them.  Perhaps that’s why I can’t stop thinking about it.

This is a novel about war (which should be obvious to you).  Here’s the 30-second pitch:  It’s fifty years or so after our own time.  Climate change has caused some problems, such as altering coastlines and increasing temperatures.  The US federal government, desperate to halt the damage, passes severe anti-fossil fuel regulations.  In response to this, several Southern states secede.  Which initiates a second Civil War.  The book follows Sarat, a young girl growing up in the Free Southern States who is trapped between the drama from both sides.  The story explores the life of a refugee, tossed from place to place and event to event with very little sense of empowerment or self-agency.  I was most struck by El Akkad’s use of language, and the character-building he employs to make us care, truly care, about Sarat and the world in which she finds herself.  The choices Sarat makes as a result of the life she has led constitute the journey we go on with her.

I’m a pretty big pacifist, it’s safe to say.  I’ve never had any desire to go and kill something or someone with a gun of some sort (outside of a video game).  I had a VERY serious plan for us to flee to Canada after 9/11, if a draft were re-instituted.  War is filthy, and often senseless, and quite often orchestrated by old men who are sending young men to die for principles they don’t even fully comprehend.  American War shows this very clearly.  It doesn’t glamorize Sarat’s journey, and I respected that.  This is not your “hooray for war” book.  If you’re looking for that, pick up something else instead.  But if you care about what the long-term effects of being human detritus in a war zone look like, then read this.

El Akkad very skillfully shows the struggles of the country on multiple levels here–from the mud and gore of individual combatants to chemical warfare that decimates hundreds of millions of people.  Even more importantly, I cared about all (well, most) of them, which is a tough thing for an author to pull off, especially with a scope as wide as this one.  Although the content can be rough to get through at times, the writing is never clunky or stilted.  It was accessible, which for me usually means that it’s that much more powerful.  I feel strongly about books that are easy to read.  Some authors seem determined to make it difficult for me to get through their work, and that rarely gives me a payoff that feels worthwhile.  That’s not the case with American War.  I finished the book heartbroken, and moved, and deeply torn about the events that take place within it.  This is, simply put, an incredible read.

Sometimes I read fiction that is mindless escapism on purpose–that gives me the chance to lose myself in something light and frothy (or, in the case of some things, DARK and frothy).  This is not either flavor of frothy.  It’s heady stuff, and will make you consider the basic moral underpinnings of armed conflict.  That’s worth the price of admission, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m not alone in believing that this is an incredible novel.  In case you were wondering, it has four out of five stars on Amazon (with 80 reviews) and four out of five stars on Goodreads (with over 1800 reviews), as of this writing.  This book impacts the people who read it.  It’s also El Akkad’s debut novel, which as usual makes me very jealous of the author.

Buy it here, and thank me later.

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