In lesser hands than Dave Eggers’, 500+ pages of tragedy, violence and deprivation would have been intolerable reading material. Fortunately for me, Eggers writes this story of the Lost Boys of Sudan with care, courage and even some humor so that I never lost interest or felt it went on too long.
Although it’s classified as fiction, it reads more like a memoir. We learn the personal tragedy of Valentino, a Sudanese boy whose world and family is ripped apart by war. He runs from his village under attack and just continues to run from refugee stop to stop, with violence and uncertainty trailing him.
“I do not want to think of myself as important enough the God would choose me for extraordinary punishment, but then again, the circumference of calamity that surrounds me is impossible to ignore.”
This “circumference of calamity” seems to expand exponentially as the book switches between his childhood and current day, when he is being robbed and held prisoner in Atlanta. Yet, the book never grows depressing or hopeless. Without creating any emotional distance, Eggers never over-dramatizes the tragedy; he uses the see-sawing timeline to continually remind the reader that our hero does indeed “get out.”
This novel (really a history lesson) never loses hope. These tens of thousands of children walked through a hell that never seemed to end, and yet many of them never gave up or gave in.
“Now we can stand and decide. This is our first chance to choose our own unknown…As impossible as it sounds, we must keep walking.”
It also helps that Valentino is so likably human, even when repeating the same mistakes.
“I wanted to be alone with my stupidity, which I cursed in three languages and with all my spleen.”
Truth be told, What is the What has been on my “To Read” shelf almost as long as it’s been published, but its sheer size and my love/hate relationship with Eggers’ books kept it from moving to the top. Three things finally pushed me to read this: 1) The VERY high recommendation of my friend Kathy, RA Librarian and someone who knows my reading taste well. 2) My 2014 reading goal to read more books that take place outside the US or England. 3) A May challenge in one of my on-line book groups to read a book with “What,” “Where,” “Who” or “Why” in its title.
Sometimes I just have to give it up to fate. This is an outstanding book.