American War is an extraordinary novel – emotionally powerful, challenging and thought-provoking. Omar El Akkad imagines a second American civil war in the future, that feels as if it could be happening right now, such is the power of his prose, and realism of the conflict. The book centres around Sarat Chestnut from Louisiana, who is only six years old when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. Her father is killed, and she, her mother, brother, and sister find refuge in Camp Patience along with thousands of others. This is an America where oil is outlawed, low-lying cities are half under water, and unmanned and deadly drones fill the sky. The reader follows brave tomboy Sarah growing up, and it’s not long before we realise she will be a key person in this conflict – one that we are told early on will claim the lives of eleven million people in the war, and almost ten times that number again in the plague that followed.
The narrative alternates between a professor and survivor of the conflict, writing after the war has ended, who has made a career out of studying the conflict, and Sarat’s story during the war. It is interspersed with news articles, press releases, and oral histories, giving this novel a feeling of non-fiction for these sections.
This is an audacious book that is compelling, poignant and at times, horrifying. It examines war and terrorism without flinching, all the while giving this imagined conflict a human face with Sarah and her family. In many ways, it is a credible study of how terrorists are made, and in Sarat, we see how the arc of her life leads her to make the terrible choices that she does.
I believe American War is destined to be a classic of our time. It’s masterfully written, in a way that draws the reader into a conflict that feels believable and relevant for now. It shines a fictional light on serious issues, while still being a page-turning and compelling read.