A Novel

Well the plan was to move to lighter reading; however, “novel” doesn’t always imply lighter, especially in dystopian fiction about a second civil war.

American WarAmerican War by Omar El Akkad

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In spite of the title, the war serves only as backdrop to the story of the Chestnut family and especially to one of the fraternal twins, Sarat. This is announced in the novel’s prologue: “This isn’t a story about war. It is a story about ruin”(7). One reads to find the multitude of ruins.

The same prologue tells some of the end in a broad way. This is a narrative structure I find appealing, leading me to read more for how something happens than what happens. Meanwhile, there are plenty of intermediate steps where the relevant question is, What happens next? Another similar device is interspersing “quotations” from various news items, trial notes, and memoirs between chapters. There is a good balance of the two strategies.

I found the pacing of the novel amazing. It starts with six-year-old Sarat playing with honey on the wooden floor and quickly introduces the war background, the bureaucracy, climate disasters, and the family’s poverty. The family faces increasing tension in this setting, but also normal childhood adventure is interspersed. Sections of the novel are 5 years apart, allowing for condensation. Then comes an abrupt shift from living in wartime to participating in war. And imprisonment with torture. (This is not a spoiler: the torture is foreshadowed in the prologue.) The point of view changes from first person of the prologue to third person for the first 2/3 of the novel; the last third returns to first person, but it is not clear whether it is the same narrator. The first person portions provide immediacy and reflection as it is an older narrator reflecting back on events.

There is a map of the US in 2075 that shows a portion under Mexican rule. Although I would love to know how and why, it isn’t told. Nor is it necessary to the novel. Necessary changes are told: portions of land under water, the quarantine of South Carolina because the north had dropped a virus so deadly that the whole state had to be walled off. This walling off of disease is one of several points where it was a stretch to suspend disbelief. Another was that only four states would resist giving up use of fossil fuel and secede. Another was that race was not an issue, Sarat being of mixed race with black features in contrast to her fraternal twin, Dana.

Most of the characters were well developed and likeable. Even those who turned out to be unlikeable, started out in better terms. I found myself always empathetic to Sarat, her decisions always being clearly motivated.

In short, it is a good read on a harrowing theme.

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2 responses to “A Novel

  1. Betty Colburn

    Re parts of US joining Mexico: I used to subscribe to an Austin based geopolitical blog (until they created a paywall) which predicted that conditions in the US, plus majority Hispanic populations would lead to the American Southwest states requesting annexation by Mexico late in the 21st century. This book sounds interesting but disturbing.

  2. You find such unusual books to read and review. Sometimes I go look for them. I don’t think I’ll look for this one, because I need lighter reading in my current life. =)

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