American War: A Novel  by Omar El Akkad

‘When I was young, I collected postcards.’

Thus begins this dystopian novel.  It is set in the late 21st century, a civil war breaks out in America over fossil fuels.  The North has brought the South under control, and the refugees from the war-torn states of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia (the ‘MAG’) have been herded into the cruelly named ‘Camp Patience’.

‘I belong to what they call the Miraculous Generation: those born in the years between the start of the Second American Civil War in 2074 and its end in 2095.’

The main character is Sarat Chestnut, aged just six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074.  The story is told by Benjamin Chestnut, her nephew and a member of the ‘Miraculous Generation’, towards the end of his own long life.  Benjamin has read his aunt’s diaries, and carries a heavy secret.

‘This isn’t a story about war.  It’s about ruin.’

As a six year old, Sarat Chestnut was happy.  She knows that oil is outlawed, and she and her family have a tough existence in war-ravaged Louisiana, but at least they are all together.  And then her father is killed, and the family is forced into Camp Patience. Sarat, her sister Dana, brother Simon and mother Martina each have different ways of managing life in the Camp.

Sarat fights back.  Most of this novel is about Sarat fighting back, about her trials and triumphs.  Sarat herself is a larger than life character: physically imposing, indefatigable in her various quests.   No spoilers here: this is a novel to immerse yourself in, to think about choices made and consequences.

I picked up this novel and became lost within its pages for the space of a day.  I needed to know how it would end.  The writing held my attention. Sarat’s story held my attention so completely that I didn’t question (as I usually would) some aspects of the story.  And the ending?  It works for me.  I found this novel engrossing and disturbing.

‘What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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