Though I used to follow closely the Canadian Giller Fiction Prize, I didn’t know What Strange Paradise was the 2021 winner until after I finished it. The moment I finished it, I headed straight for the Internet for an explanation of the mystifying ending. More about that later.
In alternating chapters the story unfolds in two parts. The first centers on refugees leaving North Africa for an unnamed (apparently Greek) island in a very creaky boat; we know this will not end well. The focus is on a boy Amir who is on board almost by accident. We learn about the greed and lies of the human traffickers and the kindness and cruelty of the refugees on board. These chapters are all titled “Before.”
The second part tells the story of the 9-year-old Amir being protected from authorities after he survived the shipwreck on the island by a teenage girl named Vanna. She brings him food and hides him in a building near their house. Her mother is completely unsympathetic to refugees and her father focuses on his drinking. She takes Amin to the woman who runs the refugee camp on the island and is told to take him to a spot near a lighthouse so he can be returned to his home. Their adventures involve communicating without a common language, stealing clothes from a resort, encountering a cleaner from the resort who gives them snack food, and finding a place to sleep as they make their way to the port area. The effort is clearly doomed to failure as they are dogged by a fearsome Colonel who has had part of his leg amputated (I think I’ve encountered this character before).
As I neared the end of the book, I thought I was facing soul-crushing disasters in both threads. Then comes the final chapter, titled “Now” and after listening to it twice, I entered the search terms, “what strange paradise ending” and found this essay by Canadian Alexander Kosoris. And what a find that was, really thorough and brilliant. Though I usually don’t mind spoilers, in this case I can’t imagine reading the book with that knowledge. Perhaps you will not be as mystified as I was, but Kosoris tells how difficult he found it to figure out the ending. Both Kosoris and Lauren B. Davis, the writer of another essay I read, question the success of the device, given the difficulty of understanding it.
Omar El Akkad, What Strange Paradise, Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, 235 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.