Review: What is the What

Read: What is the What by Dave Eggers
Stars: Five

Drinking:  Earl Grey Classic, Fortnum & Mason

What is the What is Dave Eggers’ novelization of the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy of Sudan’s civil war in the 1980s-early 2000s.  This is not a happy book, by any means.  Deng was one of tens of thousands of “unaccompanied minors” who walked from their home villages and towns in South Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.  He spent three years in Ethiopia, another year traveling among refugee camps in Sudan, and then ten years at a refugee camp in Kenya before he was finally selected to come to the United States.  Even after his arrival in Atlanta, Deng’s life did not become any easier as he navigated new challenges of getting  a job, driving, and dealing with African-Americans who resented his presence in their city.

This is not a happy book by any stretch of the imagination.  Every time it seems things are looking up for Deng, another unfortunate, terrible event occurs.  He frequently questions why he, and why the South Sudanese, are going through such a horrible experience.  However, despite the hardship, there are some good things in Deng’s life.  His friend, Achor Achor, who he is with from the first camp in Ethiopia through Atlanta, is a strong rock he is able to cling to.  Many teachers inspire him to learn rather than join the South Sudan rebel army, the SPLA.  

What really makes What is the What powerful is not Eggers’ writing, which is alright.  It is Deng’s voice coming through the writing, telling his story, that makes it work.  He reminds the reader that it is just one story out of many, that it is an average story of a Lost Boy.

While I highly recommend this book, please be aware that it contains explicit violence, references to rape, and other issues dealt with by war refugees around the world.  


Author: Lisa Fry

Freelance Writer & Editor. Book lover. Feminist. International development professional

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