What Strange Paradise

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Pub Date 19 Aug 2021 | Archive Date 19 Aug 2021

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'Deserves to be an instant classic. I haven’t loved a book this much in a long time . . . What Strange Paradise . . . reads as a parable for our times . . . Such beautiful writing . . . This is an extraordinary book.' New York Times

From the widely acclaimed author of American War, Omar El Akkad, a beautifully written, unrelentingly dramatic and profoundly moving novel that brings the global refugee crisis down to the level of a child’s eyes.

More bodies have washed up on the shores of a small island. Another over-filled, ill-equipped, dilapidated ship has sunk under the weight of its too-many passengers: Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, all of them desperate to escape untenable lives in their homelands. And only one had made the passage: nine-year-old Amir, a Syrian boy who has the good fortune to fall into the hands not of the officials, but of Vänna: a teenage girl, native to the island, who lives inside her own sense of homelessness in a place and among people she has come to disdain. And though Vänna and Amir are complete strangers and don’t speak a common language, Vänna determines to do whatever it takes to save him.

In alternating chapters, we learn the story of Amir’s life and of how he came to be on the boat; and we follow the duo as they make their way towards a vision of safety. But as the novel unfurls, we begin to understand that this is not merely the story of two children finding their way through a hostile world. Omar El Akkad's What Strange Paradise is the story of our collective moment in this time: of empathy and indifference, of hope and despair – and of the way each of those things can blind us to reality, or guide us to a better one.

'Deserves to be an instant classic. I haven’t loved a book this much in a long time . . . What Strange Paradise . . . reads as a parable for our times . . . Such beautiful writing . . . This is an...


Advance Praise

“Impassioned and richly detailed, What Strange Paradise moves like a thriller and punches like a work of art. With this haunting story of refugees, high seas, sharks and Samaritans, Omar El Akkad continues on his impressive exploration of our contemporary world.”

— Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger and Amnesty


What Strange Paradise is by turns tender and brutal in its truths. It is tremendously written, propulsive as it is expansive as it is granular in its specificities. Omar El Akkad writes with such emotional precision, power, and grace. Here we get the wondrousness of children set in sharp relief against a backdrop of the all too common dehumanization then dismissal of refugees everywhere. The book devastates and uplifts, somehow, and we are not left with hope—that isn’t the point—but asked to witness, to see what is here, with clarity, and with fullness of heart.”

—Tommy Orange, author of There There


“What an imaginative, touching, and necessary novel Omar El Akkad has brought to us. It reminds us of the human stories behind headlines and statistics, and gives us one of the most memorable children characters, whose story adds urgency and poignancy to that ‘awfully big adventure’ stated by Peter Pan.”

—Yiyun Li, author of Must I Go


Resuscitated my heart. This novel—following a boy who survives a refugee passage, and a girl whose homeland feels fractured—dares to unite us on the shore of shared human experience, and redefines hope in the face of despair. I want to read this book every single day. I want to live in a world where the beauty of strangers is a heartsong.”

—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Verge


“It is one thing to put a human face on a migrant crisis and another to do so in so compelling a way that a reader simply cannot put your book down. I read this in one sitting, my heart pounding the whole way—in a strange paradise, you might say. Marvelous.”

—Gish Jen, author of The Resisters

“Impassioned and richly detailed, What Strange Paradise moves like a thriller and punches like a work of art. With this haunting story of refugees, high seas, sharks and Samaritans, Omar El Akkad...


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Featured Reviews

'What Strange Paradise' is uncomfortable and powerful reading by a talented writer. Amir is a nine year old from Syria, who finds himself on a small Greek island after the illegal and unseaworthy boat he was travelling in sinks. A local teenage girl, Vanna, decides to help him evade the authorities, who will place him in one of the horrible camps that house migrants. The story alternates between the present, as Amir and Vanna are hunted, and the story of Amir's ill-fated sea journey. Initially I thought the book might be quite wordy, but it is actually rather economical and elegant, and a quick read. The story is simple and stark. With such a complex and emotive topic it would have been easy to go off on tangents and bring in all the many perspectives and issues involved. But El Akkad resists that in order to tell the story of one boy, and a small amount about the people around him. The people on the boat are all very believable and very human - the anonymous bodies on the beach at the start of the book gain personalities and histories in a relatively small amount of page time. Likewise the Greek characters, particularly the solider Colonel Kethros, are interesting. I felt sympathy for them too, despite them being cast in the role of the antagonists in some ways. But it's easy to criticise their behaviour towards to the migrants when one is not in the same position they are. The people living on these islands are victims of the situation as well, and have little power to solve it. The story is exciting and compelling throughout but never descends into melodrama - in fact it keeps its blows to a minimum so the punches it does land hit you hard. After reading I took a few minutes to reflect that this is happening right now in the world, to real people - and I knew I should be doing more about it. This book demonstrates the power of fiction. We've all seen news reports about people dying in shipwrecks or being held in miserable detention camps. But although that's real, it's too easy to turn away from it. Whereas immersing yourself in a book and caring about the characters in question somehow brings it home in a way that a factual description of reality doesn't. This is a story that will stay with me for a long time and is a masterful piece of writing. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to get an insight into the Mediterranean migration crisis and think about the real lives affected by it.

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My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book to review. I read it with some trepidation, expecting to be harrowed and depressed again by the horrors of the killing seas, but at the same time cheered by the prospect of somebody trying to break through in fiction the way we just accept the way our governments repel, deny and persecute any survivors. I found it a very powerfully imagined story, a fairy story for sure, but grippingly told with an interesting and nuanced set of characters. The sights and smells on the boat are viscerally memorable. The grimness of the detention centre is realistic. What is more surprising is that the ostensible villains often speak well. What the people smugglers say about the west is quite true. Even the pursuing colonel has his virtues - he rescues a drowning girl while hunting down the boy and girl whose fairy tale we are following. The kindliness of ordinary folk is uplifting too. The hotel cleaner helps with snacks for the journey. The erstwhile teacher directs the clandestine escape bid. I hope a lot of people will read this book. It would make a fine film. I will be encouraging my friends to read it once it comes out.

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Unique, powerful and beautiful. I was captivated by this book from the first page and I’ve been recommending it to people ever since. It gives a unique and confronting insight into the refugee crisis from the point of view of children. It’s not a comfortable read, but an incredibly important one.

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This wonderful novel is remarkable in that it is just as harrowing and compelling as true life refugee narratives I have read. The alternating of 'before' and 'after' chapters works well. The journey is horrific, with the escalating indignity and suffering vividly described. After the wreck of the boat, it is so interesting to read of the attitudes of different people to the survivors - the hotel maid who provides for the children, the authorities who consider than a problem to be solved and the escapee a person to be hunted down, the tourists only regretting the interruption of their holiday. This is marvellous writing, and I suspect it relies just as much on painstaking research as vivid imagining. I was a little puzzled by the ending, going back to the day the refugees reached the beach and painting a different picture, which I felt was unnecessary, but no loss of a star for that!

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What Strange Paradise is by turns tender and brutal in its truths. It is tremendously written, propulsive as it is expansive as it is granular in its specificities. Omar El Akkad writes with such emotional precision, power, and grace. Here we get the wondrousness of children set in sharp relief against a backdrop of the all too common dehumanization then dismissal of refugees everywhere. The book devastates and uplifts, somehow, and we are not left with hope—that isn’t the point—but asked to witness, to see what is here, with clarity, and with fullness of heart. Everything about this book is captivating. This novel is impossible to put down.

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This is one of the most finely written books I have read in a very long time. This short book achieves everything it appears to set out to - it works as an exploration of the experiences of refugees both generally and on a personal level. At no point is any figure in this book considered wholly good and right and either are they wholly bad and wrong. Even the characters you think will fall into those categories are so well depicted, so realistically characterised, that they surprise you with their complexity and their refusal to remain a simple caricature that the reader can compartmentalise into something they can dismiss. The book takes place over 5-6 days. Between his experience crossing the sea and his experience trying to avoid the military once he reaches an unnamed Greek Island, 9 year old Amir is the centre of the story. Through him we meet a young girl willing to help him, overworked crisis workers, military personnel, other refugees - and those trying to profit off trafficking them. At no point does the emotion or pacing of this book let up, it is contained, full of impact and very, very heartbreaking. This is a book that asks the reader to truly consider what they would do to help Amir. What would they risk? And if you genuinely believe that you would do what Vänna does, why is it you aren't finding a way to do that from wherever you actually are? The narrative of this book asks you to do the thinking for yourself: why was it OK for Vänna's parents to immigrate but not Amir's? Why do people genuinely want to believe nothing is as bad as refugees say it is? Can you honestly not understand why female refugees in a camp ask for contraception? Could you truly say you would behave any differently than the tourists on the sidelines of this story?

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"In their silent reticence was evident the reality that somewhere along the journey they'd passed the point where human goodness gave way to the calculus of survival". The book follows Amir, a young Syrian refugee on a boat journey from Egypt to Greece. A stowaway passenger-turned paying customer to a group of smugglers, his journey alternates with his arrival and following attempts to reach safety away from the authorities chasing him. Throughout the book, Omar challenges the readers perception around issues related to borders, morality and pre-conceived notions including racism and Islamophobia. He addresses stereotypes by portraying them against reality, offering the reader insights into the other side, Through his characters - likeable and dislikable - he paints a nuanced picture where he reminds the reader that "you invent good people and bad people and you draw a neat line between them....but the two kinds of people in this world aren't good and bad - they're engines and fuel". Not a single character fitted into a tidy, assigned role, because life is messy and people change when they face challenging situations, doing whatever they have to. How can we judge the pursuit of survival? The ending was bittersweet. I wanted more for the characters but the ambiguity was fitting for a tale shrouded in uncertainties. Overall, the book is a heavy read. The story wasn't fair, quiet Uncle deserved better, Amir was too trusting and weirdly, I pitied Mohamed more than I hated him. Omar stays true to the conversation he delivers through his characters, that there is no clear black and white situation and in reality, a lot of things are complex. Ultimately, everyone is paying the price. 5/5 without a doubt. I will absolutely be rereading 'What Strange Paradise' in the future after deeper reflection. Thank you NetGalley and Picador for the ARC in return for an honest review.

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I absolutely loved this book. A heart-wrenchingly humane, exquisitely-written tale of our age, it reads in just a few sittings, so eager you will be to know what happens to young Amir. It's a story full of hope which speaks of the most hopeless fates in this cruel world we live in. If more people were capable of the generosity and sheer human empathy Omar El Akkad shows in this novel, things would be so different. An absolute must-read.

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This is the most beautiful heart wrenching tender novel I have read in a good while I read it on NetGalley prior to its publication on 19 August 2021 One of the most instantly memorable images in the press over the last few years was the image of a small migrant child dead on the beech after drowning during their desperate attempt to escape to a land of safety Migration involving travel on unsafe un seaworthy small boats is the final destination for so many lives The book takes the story of one small boy before during and after his journey from Syria via Egypt with the final destination the island of Kos in the Mediterranean It is a short but intense book full of lyrical poetic language with some sentences so beautiful that I was forced to stop just to enjoy the language for a short moment longer and wish that I had such words in my soul . The book creates drama and tension interweaving them with moments of domestic simplicity and family life that bring home the similarity of all people whatever their rave religion or ethnicity.This could be your child if you were not lucky enough to be born into safety and security. I had read the Authors previous book American War and loved it but it wasn’t until after finishing the book that I fully read the publishers notes and realised who the author was The Booker longlist is published next week I so hope this fabulous book is on the list it surely deserves it I highly recommend if you enjoy a fast paced literary novel with a big heart

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American War was one of my favourite books from that year, and What Strange Paradise does not disappoint. The story of Amir, a nine-year old from Homs, Syria who finds himself washed up on a beach in Greece, and of Vanna the local teen who seeks to help. It works in Before and After chapters, telling of how he got there, and what happens after arrival. An important book of compassion, imagination and hope, yet brutal and honest in it's characters and truth, portraying flawed people from all 'sides' of the refugee situation. A portrayal of the lives of the two main characters, at the same time the novel reflects the broader population and disparate views, for example Colonel Kethros determined pursuit and rationale, yet he remains a character that can be understood. The writing is excellent; simple and precise yet rich and emotive with a wonderfully descriptive use of language; and as with his previous book the story is extremely well put together as a coherent narrative staying strong throughout.

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"Some [...] people, you have to hold their hand and show them how to be human." These days, mainstream discussion of undocumented migration is often detached and abstract, like talking about the weather. This has reached peak absurd when populist politicians spend time on Dover beach 'looking for migrant boats', and government departments seriously consider installing 'wave machines' in the Channel. El Akkad's second novel makes us look squarely at the human faces of this modern-day tragedy. At the heart of the story are Amir and Vänna. Amir is a nine-year old boy who flees the Syrian war with his family and is the only survivor of a boat crossing from Alexandria to some unnamed, probably-Greek island. Vänna is a local teenager growing up in a dysfunctional family. When their paths cross, Vänna goes to great lengths to help and protect Amir. In alternating chapters titled 'Before' and 'After', we follow the events that led Amir to the island, and the aftermath of his arrival. El Akkad introduces a memorable cast of supporting characters, that represent the whole gamut of positions people adopt with respect to undocumented migration. From those that view it as a threat, to the masses who are a little curious but mainly indifferent, to those who try to help in their own ways. The main cast is vivid. We feel Amir's disorientation, Vänna's determination, the colonel's bitter doggedness. The migrants on the boat journey are diverse and complex. We meet the pragmatic smuggler's apprentice, the quiet intellectual, the persecuted revolutionary, the cowardly bureaucrat. Their exchanges offer some of the best dialogue in the book. The writing is great, despite a few occasions where the prose turns purple. The excellent ending casts a very different light on the book. Highly recommended.

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This book is beautifully written that it makes a harrowing subject matter easy to read. I was immediately transported into the world of Amir. The book looks at the reality, on an individual level, of refugees and asylum seekers. The main character is Amir, a 9 year old boy who is fleeing Syria with his family and accidentally ends up on a ship which is wrecked on the coast of a Greek island. The book uses the characters to explore the many reactions of the people on both sides. The author does not idealise either side, we are shown flawed, broken and desperate people on both sides. People who have to make choices about how they respond to an awful situation. The writing is wonderful, the characters realistic and the book will keep me thinking long after I have finished reading. All signs of a brilliant book.

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I fear there aren’t sufficient words to accurately express how I feel about this story. What Strange Paradise is a novel unlike anything I’ve ever read. It is a beautifully written story with imagery so descriptive it played like a movie in my mind. Through the media, the rhetoric always seems to be boiled down to “refugees” or the “refugee crisis”, or some other label that reduces many different cultures into one category. Omar Al Akkad artfully puts faces, personalities, and backstories to some of the people who risk everything for the chance at a better life. This is one of the best novels I’ve read all year - maybe even longer. I’m so glad I glad I was able to spend some time with Amir and Vänna. Thank you to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan publishers for a copy in exchange for a review.

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“What Strange Paradise” looks at the global refugee crisis through the fictional story of 8 year old Amir.. He washes up on the beach of an island, the sole survivor of a sunk ship overcrowded with refugees from many countries. The book tells the story of why he is on the boat and what happens to him on the island. In the “Before” chapters, you learn more about Amir’s family and the journey on the ship. In the “After” chapters, he encounters Vanna, a teenage girl who lives on the island but who feels like she doesn’t belong. They form a partnership of sorts and Vanna does everything she can to help save Amir from over zealous authorities who want to put him in the system rather than care from him and treat him like a human being. While the style of the book makes it a very easy read, the subject matter is obviously challenging. Even though it is a story largely told through the eyes of a child, it is a difficult one. For instance, the conversations that Amir overhears on the boat show the many varied reasons that brought the passengers to that point and to risk everything to leave their “home” countries. I felt that the message is very much that we are all people and all deserved to be treated as such. I hope that is what comes across to others and that people both in power and not take on board this attitude. In terms of the way the book is written, I liked the way it flipped between “Before” and “After” as it felt like a more engaging way of telling the story, particularly as the journey on the ship could have been told quite tediously. Yes the tedium would’ve been accurate in the way that the passengers experienced it but it would have been less engrossing as a reader. I also liked the fact that it was told largely from the children’s point of view, but still encompassed adult conversations and didn’t veer away from difficult themes. I think my only criticism of the book comes when the story moved into being told by the adults such as the man in charge of the military on the island who are searching for Amir. I felt his character could’ve been developed a little more as I didn’t feel I could understand his actions, even with the bit of background we are given. Maybe that was deliberate but if we were to be given his viewpoint, I would’ve liked to know more. But as others have pointed out, this is only a snapshot. And it’s a compelling and powerful one and I wish to thank the author for helping to educate me on this subject. Thank you, also, to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read this book.

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I really enjoyed this book and it gave me a well needed lift to my day. The insight and humour spoke volumes about the experiences and challenges that we were guided through as the audience. I am very glad I read this book and would highly recommend..

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If like me you remember the horrific images from 2015 of the young Syrian boy who washed up dead on a Turkish beach, you may wonder what drives migrants to risk their lives to reach Europe? This novel “What Strange Paradise’ aims to explore how the desperate quest for safety in countries that are unwelcoming to migrants has come to pass. It focusses on a young boy Amir who has miraculously survived an ill fated sea voyage. The story itself is told through alternating chapters ‘Before’ and ‘After’ - Before focusses on how Amir and his family came to be living in Alexandria and how by accident he ends up on a fishing boat full of migrants heading towards Greece. After is set on an unnamed small Greek Island where a local teenage girl Vanna is determined to help Amir to safety at all costs. I found the Before chapters to be a powerful and devastating insight into the horror of life onboard a rundown ship overloaded with too many passengers fleeing Syria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Lebanon and other countries. The initial camaraderie amongst the passengers soon descends into a survival of the fittest mentality as conditions worsen and they start to realise that they were sold a fake dream. They gradually lose hope and are filled with despair. As a reader you realise the outlook is bleak long before they do. The mix of characters onboard were entirely believable from Mohammed a cynical young people trafficker in training ,to Maher an idealistic bookworm, to a pregnant woman who endlessly recites a phrase she has learnt in English for when she reaches a country that may not even have that as its mother tongue. All of them have dreams. What I particularly liked about the Before chapters was that it did not provide a back story for each individual migrant and how they came to be on the boat - in a way that seemed largely irrelevant. The After chapters did not have the same powerful pull for me; as to be honest Amir reaching the island whilst not exactly a happy ending did mean he had, to a degree reached a place of safety. The portrayal of the impact on a small island of a never-ending wave of migrants arriving was well portrayed with the defeated Colonel Kethros and his small company of soldiers ineffectively trying to ‘defend’ the island against what they saw as invaders. It appears that he has lost his humanity, even if locals such as Vanna, Madame El Ward and a hotel housekeeper have not. This book is haunting and heartbreaking, such beautiful and powerful writing. I haven’t read anything that describes so well the sheer despair that faces migrants in their journey to what they hope, but probably secretly know, isn’t a better destination. Everybody should read this book, so that the next time you read about ‘another’ migrant boat arriving on these shores you really can see the human stories behind the headlines and statistics. I hope to read more of Omar El Akkad’s writing in the future. Huge thanks to the publisher Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for the opportunity to read the e-arc ahead of publication in return for an honest review.

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Images on nightly news, is what came to mind when I read this book. A little boy washed adore alone. I don’t think we can truly appreciate the fear of someone who has fled from his country to escape danger and hunger. Omar El Akkad gave us a glimpse through the eyes of a nine year old boy Amir, who escapes with his family from Syria to Egypt and unknowingly ends on a boat that leaves him on an unnamed island in Greece. With beautiful writing , and an impactful story, the author raises many questions about the current refugee crisis in the world. About moral issues we face as human beings. Haunting and reflective.

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What Strange Paradise is award-winning and critically acclaimed Canadian investigative journalist El Akkad’s compelling yet heartbreakingly tender novel that tells the story of the international refugee crisis through the experiences of Amir, a Syrian boy who washes up on the shore of a small island. Amir Utu is a 9-year-old boy who flees the hellish violence of civil war in his Syrian motherland in search of safety, ending up initially on Egyptian soil. Alongside his mother, baby stepbrother and stepfather, Younis, the family have swapped all of their worldly possessions to pay the fee demanded by the smugglers for their passage to Egypt. Once there, Amir then manages to seemingly serendipitously and accidentally clamber aboard a repurposed fishing boat heading North from the port of Alexandria towards Europe and The West, after following Younis, and once they reach shore they hope they will be able to successfully claim asylum. However, the decision to board The Calypso, the ramshackle boat bound for the Greek island of Kos may be one they both (live to) regret. As the seafaring adventure turns into a nightmare of massive proportions the vessel overloaded with desperate migrants begins to capsize in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea precipitated by a deadly storm. The sea rages and the winds roar and those aboard becoming increasingly exhausted and hungry. People perish and their bodies become lost at sea; part of the omnipresent wave of corpses found washing up on European shorelines over the past decade in particular. Amir is the only survivor in the throng of undocumented migrants initially buoyed by the idea of safety and a better life who put all of their faith in an overladen vessel. When he awakens among the sand dunes scared and alone he is accosted by a swarm of agitated men yelling at him in a foreign language and happens upon a 15-year-old local girl named Vänna Hermes who informs him that soldiers frequently comb the beach looking for unwanted new arrivals. She becomes a much-needed ally in his fight for survival and she not only conceals him from the eagle eyes of the patrolling colonel but feeds and clothes him too. Her mission is to help him avoid detention and keep him safe until another altruist can ferry him to the mainland in two days time. This is a captivating and searingly profound novel that illustrates just how exquisite simple stories told beautifully and packed with heart and soul can be. It is told in chapters that alternate between before - during the treacherous and lengthy voyage - and after - when he meets Vänna. A riveting, compassionate and visceral tale reflective of the real-life horrors migrants often witness, it was heartwarming to see Amir and Vänna overcoming their language, cultural and religious differences and learning to speak through kind gestures, but on the other hand, we have the cruel and empathy-bankrupt soldiers who want those seeking safer quarters off their soil. Vänna is a friend to Amir in a hostile world. Using lyrical prose, El Akkad captures the plight of those who leave everything behind and sell all their possessions just for a chance to be safe and to have the opportunity to thrive. Within the incisive narrative, there are didactic passages on the causes of oppression, migration and displacement as well as the current refugee crisis, and if you don't feel your soul stirring at the timely subject matter you simply mustn't be human. There is a compelling contrast between humourous and solemn moments, humanity and brutality and you quickly become thoroughly invested in Amir and his story. But rather than focusing on the causes of migration, El Akkad has woven a character-driven action-adventure novel written from Amir’s perspective and gives a feeling and sense of the crisis on a personal rather than a political level and rehumanises discourse on the topic of immigration. This is fiction that doesn’t forget. Highly recommended.

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