Book review by Alli Vail
It feels impossible to write about Omar El Akkad’s prescient American War without acknowledging realities south of the border and climate change.
His novel spans decades but starts in 2074 America. The country is embroiled in civil war after fossil fuel is banned by the government and a handful of southern states secede, unwilling to give up gas. Life is complicated by severe climate change and displacement. Louisiana-born Sarat Chestnut ends up in Camp Patience, a place for refugees near the northern border. Here, she meets an older man who radicalizes her to fight for the glorious southern cause. He whispers about the past: of Spanish moss, fertile land, smoked pigs, peaches, key lime pie. “How much of it was real and how much pleasant fantasy didn’t matter. She believed every word,” El Akkad writes. Here are the echoes of President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and emphasis on false nostalgia.
El Akkad’s novel weaves whispers of the past and present to create a probable and terrifying future. It’s clever social commentary wrapped around compelling fiction. Good guys, bad guys, right, wrong — it’s murky.
Sarat is a rare woman of fiction in that she’s not generally ‘likable.’ I like her: she’s lumbering, spiteful, uncompromising, arrogant, unsympathetic and, depending on perspective, has a skewed moral compass. We understand her actions only via the perspective of others and the format of the novel: the central story supplemented by witness stories, university textbook syllabi, and government files.
This is a story of war, framed around a woman’s need for revenge because of the war. When someone congratulates her on an act of violence, Sarat is unmoved. “Revenge,” she echoed. “Revenge, revenge. I hurt one man. Do you think it was just one man who hurt me?”
El Akkad demonstrates his understanding of humanity and news headlines through insights like this one from the narrator about refugees: “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.”
There is a sense that history will repeat in a new place, at a different time. As one man says to Sarat: “My people have created an empire. It is young now, but we intend it to be the most powerful empire in the world. For that to happen, other empires must fail.”
It’s is chillingly predictive. Good thing summer is almost over. A beach read this is not.
El Akkad will be at the Saturday Night Gala at the 2019 Whistler Writers Festival on October 19th at 8:00 p.m. He will be in conversation with moderator Bill Richardson and fellow author Maude Barlow as they discuss how their book’s topics of pressing global issues, told in fact and fiction, can spark change. Find your tickets at www.whistlerwritersfest.com
Alli Vail is a writer living in Vancouver and a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio Online program.