What is the What

I usually post book reviews exclusively on my other blog, but this one is just too good not to talk about. “What is the What” by Dave Eggers is probably the most important book of the year, a life-changing work that’s incredible.

Sudan is a nation mired in war, and its people seem destined to suffer. Valentino Achak Deng is a survivor of the civil wars, one of the Sudanese “Lost Boys” who trekked 1,000 miles to escape his country and grew up in a refugee camp. Eggers combines elements of Deng’s story with some fictional narrative to create what is possibly the most compelling book I’ve ever read.

It’s easy to get buried under the landslide of hard luck that comes Deng’s way, from his village being leveled to his incredibly painful exodus across Sudan, losing his family, losing his friends, and constantly fighting off hunger and disease. The format of the novel is incredible, echoing Deng’s message throughout: somebody please listen to me. Hear me. We begin in the present in America, where Deng has been relocated for safety. He becomes the victim of a home invasion robbery, where he’s beaten and nearly killed while all of his possessions are stolen. The book becomes a prayer from Deng, words spoken in his mind, imagined conversations with his persecutors, his friends, anybody who happens through his life. Somebody hear me. Validate me.

Deng grows up in unimaginable circumstances, bringing us through his passage into adulthood. He sees friends killed by lions on the walk out of Sudan. Groups of boys executed by bombers. Dead bodies, horrific mutilations, and yet, Deng struggles on. It’s not all horrible. There are moments of great humor, such as Deng falling in love, and uplifting passages that will make your soul sing.

The title of the book refers to the legend of creation told to Deng by his father. “The What” is something endowed to the Dinka tribe of Sudan by God. It becomes the driving force in the story, yet we never hear it fully explained until the end. Deng keeps talking, to his captors, to the police, to his Christian neighbors downstairs, to hospital orderlies, to patrons of the fitness club where he works. Someone will listen. Someone will hear.

Read this book and be changed forever. Read about Valentino Achak Deng and his efforts here.

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