Book Review: What is the What by Dave Eggers

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I remember first picking up ‘What is the What’ by Dave Eggers (Penguin, U.K £7.99, 535p) in, the now sadly deceased, Borders Books of Glasgow around a year and a half ago. There was no particular reason, looking back, that I should have been drawn to this book. Perhaps the title sparked an element of curiosity; it is in fact probable that this was the case (the title, we discover, alludes to a story told by the Dinka tribe: that of our narrator). After reading the blurb, I opened the book in order to read a few pages and, within little time at all I can safely say I was hooked. I was stood on the shop floor, the book glued to my hands, unable to put it down.

I have found Eggers to have a fairly distinguishable writing style, where his use of language is nothing short of eloquent, it is extremely intelligent but at the same time he manages to create something that is easy to read and understand, that is very enjoyable, and that is at times even very humorous despite often dark circumstances. ‘What is the What’ is the first title that I read by Eggers, but has not been the last.

‘What is the What’ is the “fictionalised autobiography” of a Sudanese refugee, Valentino Achak Deng, now living in Atlanta in the USA. It is the story of his struggle for freedom, a story he longed for people to know, a story that he had in the past dictated to strangers silently from within his head. It is a story that Eggers has enabled him to share with us all. We follow Achak’s life from the outbreak of the second Sudanese civil war, affecting his hometown in the South of Sudan, through the treacherous journey that would one day lead to his being flown to America where he was to be greeted only by more difficulties, and face a continued struggle.

‘What is the What’ seems to me to be a number of items presented as just one. Not only is it the biography of Valentino Achak Deng, but it is also a highly compelling story. It is a coming-of-age story, not only that: it is a tale of bravery, of strength, of love and of loss, of suffering, of horror, and of war. It reflects on human nature, prejudices, racism. It illustrates different states of torture inflicted upon a being. It explores what freedom is. These many different elements of the novel work together in harmony and create something extremely special and most certainly unique.

The story of Achak is structured by Eggers in a way that allows his struggles with war in Sudan to be told alongside, in parallel to, the story of his difficulties in America. The torture inflicted upon him in Africa, with those inflicted upon him in the US. The love he found in a Kenyan refugee camp and the love that he clung to in Atlanta. The friendships he made on his various paths, they almost cross paths themselves in the narrative. Structurally, it is very clever and this enhances the story. It helps enhance our understanding too, of struggles that are most likely incomprehensible to the majority of readers.

Upon reaching the end of the story, I did not feel that it had really ended. I found it lingered in my mind afterward. It is not the sort of read that can be forgotten once finished but rather is one that begs to be re-read. Achak’s is a story that upon knowing, I felt compelled to re-tell. This novel not only creates empathy in the reader toward our main character but also creates understanding between the reader and the author, an understanding of the story’s need to be known that we can only assume drove Eggers to assist Valention Achak Deng in telling his story.

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