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, that unmanned drones fill the sky. And when her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she quickly begins to be shaped by her particular time and place until, finally, through the influence of a mysterious functionary, she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. Telling her story is her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, born during war – part of the Miraculous Generation – now an old man confronting the dark secret of his past, his family’s role in the conflict and, in particular, that of his aunt, a woman who saved his life while destroying untold others.
I have to admit that I initially found this book a little difficult to get into. It’s split into four main sections featuring Sarat at different ages – initially at six, and then eleven, before moving onto to her adult life. For the first section, there is a certain amount of scene-setting, before the death of Sarat’s father and the move to the refugee camp, which for me was when the story really began to pick up. I think it helps that we see Sarat at age eleven, where she is starting to develop more personality than is evident in the first section, but also that there is more happening in the story at this stage.
Between each chapter, Benjamin – Sarat’s nephew and the narrator – inserts excerpts from official documents and reports. These documents and reports range from books, reports and official, redacted documents, and are generally quite short. Regular readers of the blog will know that I love the inclusion of these kinds of documents in a novel, and American War was no exception. For me, these documents help to set the scene, from providing background as to how the Civil War began as well as giving insight into the world in which it’s set – not just America, but also the wider world and what’s happening there.
American War is set some 60 years from now, and yet is scarily relevant to today. Refugee camps, climate change, unmanned drones, foreign powers involving themselves in the politics of other nations – doesn’t it all sound like what you hear on the news on an almost daily basis? And of course there is Sarat’s recruitment into events by the mysterious functionary mentioned in the synopsis. Her cause might be different, but it all sounded very much like the radicalisation that we hear so much about today.
Omar El Akkad has worked as a journalist, covering, amongst other events, the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring revolution, and the military trials at Guantánamo Bay, and it’s easy to see elements of his journalistic work and the events he’s covered in the novel, which comes across as incredibly authentic. This is a realistic and often horrifying portrayal of war, and the atrocities that are committed by both sides as part of such conflict. That’s not to say that American War is sensationalist in anyway, however – the detail is sufficient to remove any doubt as to what’s happening but without being excessive.
For me, this novel felt like something of a warning. I’ve mentioned that the novel is set some 60 years in the future – it opens in 2075 – and it’s a set in a world that is recognisable, yet not identical to our own. Geographically speaking, climate change has begun to take its toll, with coastal regions of America now submerged, and the southern states suffering through increasingly higher temperatures. It’s a bleak world, and one that is all too plausible for my liking.
American War was published on 7 September by Picador. Many thanks to Emma Finnigan and the publisher for the review copy.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐