Book review: American War by Omar El Akkad

by Danyl McLauchlan / 17 May, 2017

Omar El Akkad.

The perspective of the author sets this dystopian novel apart from the Hunger Games and Divergent.

At first sight, American War looks like a lot of the dystopian books littering the battlefield of the contemporary publishing market. Omar El Akkad’s debut novel is set in a late 21st-century United States, which is no longer united or even a functioning nation-state. Decades of political and social conflict aggravated by environmental collapse have led to a second civil war: North against South. Can one plucky girl learn to fight, revenge her family, find love and heal the broken country?

What sets his book apart from your Hunger Games, Divergents, Water Knifes and their many imitators is El Akkad’s perspective.

Born in Egypt, he became a war reporter, covering the Arab Spring and the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan before moving to the US and writing about riots and terror plots. As someone who has seen many national and civil conflicts up close, he wants to show that war isn’t about soldiers or bravery or honour or daring missions that turn the tide. Its horrors are mostly experienced by civilians: women, children and the elderly; families losing everything when they flee the approaching battlefront, doomed to spend their lives languishing in refugee camps, waiting to be massacred by rogue militia, or just killed by accident in one of the many random, pointless atrocities that characterise modern warfare. If a gruff but wise and kindly stranger with a twinkle in his eye takes a liking to a quick-witted, brave young orphan in American War, it’s probably because he wants to recruit her to become a suicide bomber.

The book’s plucky heroine does learn to fight and takes revenge upon her enemies, but this doesn’t make her a hero: it turns her into a monster. The daring raids that might end the war only ever deepen and prolong it.

If all this sounds a little grim, well, it is. It’s not a difficult novel, though. It’s written in the same highly accessible, ready-for-screen-adaptation tone as the genre it’s critiquing. Fictional news clippings and oral history excerpts build up the backstory of the world and the war.

They describe a future in which the seas begin to rise, swallowing America’s coastal cities. The US Government attempts to pass a bill outlawing the extraction and use of fossil fuels, and the southern states attempt to secede. Terrorist attacks provoke military overreactions, which lead to full-scale war.

Looking at the headlines coming out of the US, it’s hard to find any of this implausible. It’s a science fiction novel describing the world as much of it is. Just not in America. Yet.

AMERICAN WAR, by Omar El Akkad (Knopf, $35)

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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