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What Strange Paradise review: A nine-year-old refugee’s ‘upturned fairytale’

A small boy is the sole survivor of a boat tragedy at sea when the refugees he is travelling with are lost. Omar El Akkad recounts his terrifying journey to the west, and the attitudes that have shaped his life ever since

New in paperback is What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad, which tells the story of another nine-year-old asylum seeker, Syrian Amir, the sole survivor of a desperate and disastrous boat journey. Elegantly wrought details of landscapes, wild nature, flora and fauna give the early part of the book a feeling of realism, almost like documentary drama. The chapters sway alternately from ‘before’ to ‘after’ Amir washes to safety, like the tides of the sea which deliver him. 

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad is out now in paperback (Pan Macmillan, £8.99)

As the story progresses it takes on an almost hyperreal persona; increasingly it reads like a myth, or “upturned fairytale”, as Akkad describes the random collection of belongings that wash up alongside the dead bodies on the beach. The ending comes with one hell of a thump, but long before that, it’s clear that Akkad’s target is the hypocritical west, which chooses to regard overseas conflicts in simple binary terms, wears its compassion for victims like a badge, but offers little help that might require self-sacrifice. 

You can buy What Strange Paradise fromThe Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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