Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
American War follows the story of Sarat, a girl who ends up playing a pivotal role in the second American civil war. Starting in the year 2075, the book describes an America ravaged by rising sea levels and hotter temperatures. Most of the country has moved onto renewable energy sources, but part of the south refuses to relinquish their oil and fossil fuels. The civil war that follows leaves much of the south impoverished and dependant on aid from other countries. There are various rebel groups vying for control across the south, and widespread hatred towards the more powerful north.
The book begins with Sarat’s family wanting to escape to the north, but instead, they end up in a southern refugee camp. The story moves forward giving us snapshots of key periods in Sarat’s life; first as a young child, then as a twelve-year-old being groomed to perpetrate acts of violence. Later we see her in her late teens and early adulthood, as she becomes a weapon of war and suffers the consequences.
Not only is American War a fascinating, gripping story, it’s also a powerful commentary on the direction in which modern America, and much of the western world, is headed. El Akkad creates a time in which American innovation has been used against its own citizens, and in which the decline of American influence has been exploited by other rising powers. The book takes today’s geopolitical concerns and indicators, such as climate change and growing inequality, and imagines them as fully developed global realities.
American War showcases a world in which power has shifted away from the United States and instead towards a Middle Eastern empire. The realities of this world are juxtaposed against the ones we currently know: there are European refugees crossing the Mediterranean to find safety, and Mexico has expanded its influence over the southern US. These realities seem jarring, but they are contextualized within the story in ways that are seamless. With this book, El Akkad has created a world that is upended, yet completely believable.
The story also delves into the process of radicalization, which feels highly relevant in today’s world. Sarat’s personal journey highlights the vulnerabilities and anger that make her susceptible, and the book follows how she is groomed by the more powerful influences around her.
The writing is stellar. El Akkad makes use of clear images and fresh metaphors that propel the story forward, and he manages to create a dystopian world that is unique and complete without being over-explained. Sarat’s story is interspersed with documents related to the war, and though they can sometimes feel out of place, they do ultimately serve to create a fuller picture of the book’s events.
In the end, American War is unnerving because its world doesn’t seem impossible. The story is rooted in ideas that are startlingly prevalent in today’s discourse, and that allows the book to be as terrifying as it is mesmerizing.
American War is published by Penguin Random House.