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Rated 3.88
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American War

By: Omar El Akkad

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Imprint: Knopf

Format: Hardcover | ISBN: 9780451493583

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On Sale: | Pages: 352

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An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself. Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike."
Although he sets “American War” in the future, El Akkad has his vision fixed squarely on current events. Waterboarding, rendition, extreme interrogation, rising coastlines and domestic terrorism all play their part in the story. But “American War” avoids becoming a polemic. Its characters are too vivid and contradictory, its twists of plot too well constructed, for the novel to settle for familiar and obvious messages. Still, the novel explores some timeless truths.... “American War” is a dark, grim and often upsetting narrative, each sequence leading inexorably to the tale's violent conclusion. But El Akkad also takes care to delineate the joys that life can bring... The notion of civil war doesn't feel as far-fetched as it once did, and El Akkad ably addresses the issue with honesty, insight and compassion.
—San Francisco Chronicle
There's a fair amount of authorial winking and seat-of-the-pants science going on here, but never mind; El Akkad is far less concerned with the mechanics of his conceit than its psychological underpinnings.... The novel may be set in the future, and the title may be “American War,” but there's nothing especially futuristic or, for that matter, distinctly American about it. This is precisely the author's point, and the thing that's most unsettling about the book.... [T]he novel's thriller premise notwithstanding, El Akkad applies a literary writer's care to his depiction of Sarat's psychological unpacking and the sensory details of her life, first in Camp Patience, then on the move as a freelance insurgent.... Whether read as a cautionary tale of partisanship run amok, an allegory of past conflicts or a study of the psychology of war, “American War” is a deeply unsettling novel.
—New York Times
“American War” is not a subtle book, and Mr. El Akkad is using the future to make a blunt point about the present. By substituting defiant Southerners for Muslim fundamentalists, he seeks to make the victims of the “War on Terror” more recognizable and the blowback more coherent. The parallels are explicit.... Yet the parallels only stretch so far. Somehow neither race nor religion figures into this civil war, which makes the implied connections between Confederate rebels and jihadist insurgents superficial at best.... Even so, “American War” is a provocative thought experiment and a rewarding conversation piece.
—Wall Street Journal
It has to speak the language of oppression and resistance, which is usually stiff, bureaucratic and militaristic. Great for rallies, tough on novels. But El Akkad, an Egyptian-born journalist who's covered the war on terror, has a knack for giving that material as much of a heartbeat as possible. His imagined speeches, transcripts, history-book passages, censored letters and news stories feel accurate while highlighting institutional deceptions and omissions. Better, El Akkad clears plenty of space for human-scale storytelling amid the geopolitical scaffolding.
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
Although such a cataclysmic story might suggest a sprawling epic, El Akkad keeps his novel focused on the members of one ill-fated family in Louisiana, starting in 2075, when the country is enjoying a fragile, if often violated, peace.... The reflection between Sarat's private ordeal and the country's vast, ongoing calamity is sustained by a series of intercalary chapters: excerpts from history books, news reports, memoirs and speeches. These disturbingly realistic documents flesh out our vision of a world struggling to restore order amid spasms of chaos.... And perhaps most relevant is the way El Akkad re-creates the rhetoric of factional righteousness, the self-validating claims of the aggrieved that keep every war fueled.... How can such a toxic cloud of antipathy ever be vented? "What am I supposed to do, now that it's done," Sarat pleads, "just snuff it out like a candle?" That's the challenge "American War" poses as we consider how to break the cycles of vengeance spiraling around our own era.
—Washington Post
The reader grows attached to Sarat and Simon not merely because of their perilous situation but because El Akkad is skilled at capturing the details that make them into real, flesh-and-blood people. Working against this nuance are jumps in time as long as a decade that interrupt the arc of the narrative.... Whereas a surrealist or fabulist novel can substitute signs and symbols, or psychological truths, for some kinds of explanation— case in point, April's “The Book of Joan” by Lidia Yuknavitch — “American War” is very much in a realist mode and must meet a much different set of criteria for suspending reader disbelief. Despite these flaws — which may register to some readers as quibbles — “American War” is a worthy first novel, thought-provoking, earnest and mostly well-wrought.... El Akkad's formidable talent is to offer up a stinging rebuke of the distance with which the United States sometimes views current disasters, which are always happening somewhere else. Not this time.
—Los Angeles Times
...a most unusual novel, one featuring a gripping plot and an elegiac narrative tone, but also an oppressively grim vision of a divided, self-destructive nation that becomes a victim of its darkest impulses and actions.... Although El Akkad's "American War" frequently employs too heavy a hand, the novel offers a searing indictment of jingoism, whatever its ideological hue. And it provides yet one more example of how an outrage such as Guantanamo-style torture sets the revenge cycle spinning.
—Boston Globe
Omar El Akkad's debut novel, “American War,” is an unlikely mash-up of unsparing war reporting and plot elements familiar to readers of the recent young-adult dystopian series “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” From these incongruous ingredients, El Akkad has fashioned a surprisingly powerful novel — one that creates as haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in “The Road” (2006), and as devastating a look at the fallout that national events have on an American family as Philip Roth did in “The Plot Against America” (2004).... There are considerable flaws in “American War” — from badly melodramatic dialogue to highly contrived and derivative plot points — but El Akkad has so deftly imagined the world his characters inhabit, and writes with such propulsive verve, that the reader can easily overlook such lapses.
—New York Times
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