AMERICAN WAR, a debut novel by Canadian journalist Omar El Akkad, is a beautifully written portrait of a Southern family affected by, and then affecting, a future civil war between the Northern and Southern United States.
In 2074, rising sea levels due to global warming have wiped out the coasts, pushing millions of refugees inland, and the lands near the equator have grown nearly too hot for human habitation. After the President signs into law a complete prohibition on fossil fuels, several Southern states declare independence, which ignites a second Civil War.
The story focuses on the Chestnut family living in Louisiana when war breaks out, chronicling them losing everything, and the commitment of Sarat, one of the Chestnut daughters, to fighting the North to the bitter end to gain revenge for her family’s suffering.
The novel has been hailed as being prescient and a cautionary tale for our times, but for me, it widely missed that mark. The story reads more like the old Civil War was lifted out of history and placed in the future, with fossil fuels instead of slavery being the issue that ignites the war. Artifacts such as short articles and transcripts punctuate the chapters, providing background on the war, but while they add somewhat to the setting, they don’t really get into the key political and cultural roots of the conflict. Despite the rising sea levels and use of vehicles and modern weaponry such as drones, the novel really feels like the last Civil War being refought. In my view, the result misses the real divide in the USA, which is more about class versus class, rural versus urban, and Red versus Blue tribal worldviews. So for me, I hard a hard time connecting El Akkad’s world with the one I live in.
The real strength of the novel isn’t its ideas but its execution. The setting is beautifully rendered and lived-in, the characters and dialogue natural and engaging. It’s a literary civil war, one that’s a joy to read purely for its narrative prose. There isn’t a lot of action, so it’s this prose and general intrigue with the war itself that keeps it moving. Instead, the rich and deep setting is front and center in the book, and for me made AMERICAN WAR worth reading.
Recommended for readers who enjoy literary dystopian fiction.