El Akkad, Omar. What Strange Paradise. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 2021. F;2/22.
This won the prestigious Canadian Giller prize for 2021 and I read it after The Listeners, one of the other shortlisted ones and was surprised, because of apparently virtue-signalling decisions on winners in previous years, that I thought this story was pretty impressive.
A young boy is the only survivor of a horribly capsized migrant boat headed for Europe from Africa. He escapes from authorities on the fictitious island where he lands alive on a beach among dozens of corpses, and is helped by a 15-year-old girl and others to try to find his way to a clandestine escape off the island. Chapters jump from “before” to “after” in respect of the boat’s catastrophe, and there’s plenty of suspense and terror gripping both the on-board migrants and the boy and his older friend, building to two different climaxes.
Of course we are disturbed at the injustice and misfortune of sub-Saharan African people trying to escape, and the vicious advantage taken of them by liars offering transportation and the inhumanity of protective governments fending them away from Western countries. But this author isn’t punitively rubbing our noses in that as for example Megan Coles was in her Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. El Akkad is at the same time credibly emotionally involved with his characters and benignly objective about the opposing powerful after all disinterested circumstantial forces affecting them. I finish his book moved and maybe a wee bit wiser.