by Omar El Akkad
In a story like American War, you can see how an author’s experience comes out in the narrative, adding a sense of legitimacy to the whole thing. And who could be better than El Akkad, an award-winning journalist reporting on war, terror, and civil unrest, to tell the story of the Second American Civil War? Taking place sixty years in the future and spanning a couple decades, we follow Sarat and her family as they move about the war-torn Free Southern State––comprised of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, joined together in defiance against the U.S. ban on fossil fuels. Exposed to the horrors and tragedies brought down upon the FSS by the North, Sarat becomes converted to the Southern cause, and turns into one of its most fearsome soldiers. In the telling, El Akkad demonstrates the makings of a terrorist in a way that feels eerily real.
I’m super impressed by American War, to the point that I want to loan it to everyone I know to readily demonstrate numerous techniques coming together effectively to make a good story. El Akkad gives us enough information early on to understand this future world, but he never overwhelms the reader with anything like an exposition dump. Instead, the author slowly hands the reader details to further flesh things out, creating something living and breathing in the process. His characterization is also strong, and he handles it with great subtlety, telling the reader about the people who populate this world largely through their dialogue and actions. And the pacing of American War is great, with the author keenly aware of times when things need to either ramp up or slow down.
Throughout El Akkad’s story, he ends each chapter with an excerpt from an interview, textbook, newspaper article, etc. This contrasts with the overarching narrative––which is told in a straightforward manner––and also provides it with a great deal of depth in several interesting ways. It sometimes acts as a world-building instrument, providing background information or context for different plot points. It quite often adds some legitimacy to the plot, acting almost to link things to the real world because of how accurately these passages resemble their relative media. But, this technique became more interesting to me as we went along when it morphed into an instrument for foreshadowing. By dropping specific details of things to come in these passages, and presenting them without ceremony, the author very effectively cultivates a sense of suspense when we move back into the main story.
Always compelling and occasionally disturbing––especially when we head into the Guatanamo-esque Sugarloaf Detention Facility––American War is a necessary read by a confident and competent author. I’ll honestly be a bit mad, probably for the first time, if this gets snubbed around Giller time.