I wish I liked this novel more than I did. There is no story—unless it was Rwanda; unless, here, it is the stolen generation—worth knowing and caring about more than the one this book tells: the slaughter of Sudanese villagers wedged between vicious idealists (the Sudanese army helped by Murahaleen militias, on the one hand, and desperate SPLA rebels, on the other). The problem in Eggers’ book is not the story; it’s the novel. And I wish it didn’t matter, but it does.
Billed as both an autobiography and a novel, the book is told by a Sudanese boy, Valentino Achak Deng, and it describes in vivid and saturated close-up his flight through every kind of terror across southern Sudan and Ethiopia to a refugee camp in Kenya, and finally to the USA, where he finds an edgy safety at last.
But Deng is not the author of the book he tells; that would be Dave Eggers, wunderkind author of the fictive memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And although Eggers writes smoothly, the book reads like a ghost-written memoir, not a novel. Its voice rings false.
But forget the novel; read the story stuck inside it. Buy the book. Buy another for someone you love: the author’s proceeds are helping to rebuild southern Sudan and to educate Valentino Achak Deng, who lived there once, before all this.
Dave Eggers, What is the What, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, June 2007