American War by Omar El Akkad

What would happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself?

4/5 stars.
ebook, 320 pages.
Read from February 27, 2018 to March 6, 2018.

When I first started reading this novel, the fourth out of the five books for me off the Canada Reads 2018 shortlist, I let out a sigh of exasperation realizing it was yet another dystopian story which, is not generally my favourite genre. The reason being is that most of them are YA and have little literary quality. Granted, this is not true for all books in the genre, you just take a look at some of the stellar stories by Margaret Atwood.  This book while not quite what I would call Atwood quality is still one of the better adult dystopian stories I have read.

Set in the future, the world is in an environmental crisis in which many coastlines and cities have been swallowed up by the rising tides. America is under siege as it’s second civil war takes root. The South is unwilling to give up the fossil fuels that drive their economy and are tired of being pushed around and ignored by the Northern part of the country. The tension between the two sides erupts with violent consequences as this battle is one that will last a lifetime, especially for one family. Martina and Benjamin Chestnut and their three children Simon, Dana and Sarat live in Louisiana. The girls are fraternal twins but could not be more different. They are only six years old when the war begins. While not quite in the South, Martina decides to take her family to a refugee camp called Camp Patience after Benjamin dies and as bombs start to rain down near their home. It was a decision that she would come to regret. The refugee camp is no holiday and no place to raise children but they manage to get by for the next few years as a bloody battle rages on outside the camps barriers. The story follows Sarat, a feisty and brave young girl who ends up being influenced by the Rebels in the South and an influential man with certain resources and connections. Sarat begins learning skills to help her become a pawn in the game of war.

An unspeakable tragedy hits Camp Patience. The event is a turning point in which Sarat’s persona hardens as well as her need for revenge against the people who have done her and her family wrong. Sarat spends her whole life fighting and suffering. It is all she knows. How deep will one betrayal afflict her and how will her choices affect the future outcome of her family as well as the whole country?

When I first started reading this novel I was trying to pinpoint exactly what purpose Sarat’s story is serving. Is it that regardless of circumstances people are allowed to fight for their beliefs? Or is it about suffering or revenge? Then it hit me. Every single war strategy used in this book is one that America has used as tactics in war: drone strikes, refugee camps, terror cells, being provided with weapons by foreign governments, illegal detention facilities, torture etc. This book brings America’s wars home and shows the gritty and not-so-politically correct tactics that are sometimes employed during war times.  This book is meant to open your eyes to the realities of war and show that it is never as black and white as it seems, or how the media portrays it or how your liberal friend feels about it. War is suffering and nobody wins.

The ending of this tragedy only gets more tragic. I wished for nothing more than for Sarat to continue being the same person. But, well, I can’t stay more without spoiling it!  The author does an impeccable job of painting the pages in the blood of war and allowing the reader to feel apart of the plot as you follow the entire Chestnut family.

The emotional depth was a big win for me in this book but I also felt bogged down with a tangle of details, shifting perspectives and time changes. This clunky approach was a big let down as I felt like this story had the potential to be something extraordinary.  I still really enjoyed the unique story and the exceptional characters but the execution was missing that organizational spark.

The author’s career as a journalist sheds some light on how he can write about war so vividly.  He is an award-winning journalist who has travelled the globe and has covered some of the biggest news stories on wars in our recent history.

At this point, as I have now read four out of the five shortlisted 2018 Canada Reads novels and I would say that this novel best meets the criteria of ‘one book to open your eyes”. With jaw-dropping moments of emotion to shocking realities of violence that are taking place in our world right now, you come to see Sarat a real and flawed person. A person that makes terrifying decisions that, within the acts of war, are neither right nor wrong but rather her justification to end her own suffering.