What is the What is the most extraordinary book I have read in quite a while. Dave Eggers novelizes the astonishing experiences of Valentino Achak Deng. Achak, born in a small village in southern Sudan, was made a refugee at the age of six. Torn from his family when genocidal horsemen descended on his village, he fled alone until meeting up with a group of boys led by Dut Majok, a young teacher from his village. Apparently, Dut is leading the boys to safety in Ethiopia, but in time it is revealed that he may be delivering them to the Sudan People's Liberation Army to become child soldiers.
The structure of the novel provides further interest to the story and insight into Achak's psyche. Achak narrates the story by imagining himself recounting his events to Americans he encounters once he has emigrated to Atlanta. Achak has a desperate need to tell his story, but without a venue for doing so, he recounts it to himself. We, the readers, are the beneficiaries of his reflections.
Among the most striking features of the book is the role that sheer luck played in Achak's survival. He is often placed in a situation where he must choose between two or more courses of action without any basis for knowing what is best. One path leads to survival, the other to disaster or even death. On his journey, many of his fellow travelers die of malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion. Some are attacked and eaten by lions and hyenas. At one point, Achak is running through the forest with another boy and a lion "takes" the boy. The lion comes so close to Achak that he can smell it. It's clear to the reader that survival is entirely a matter of chance.
While the novel recounts horrors and hardships, it also recounts Achak's adolescent urges, his friendships, his school-day triumphs, and romantic passions, allowing the reader to not merely feel sympathy for him, but to empathize with him. Other characters are also well constructed. His friends are multidimensional and his fellow Sudanese refugees are engagingly diverse, leaving the reader to understand that the horror of the civil war beset real people and not merely generic African victims.
More than anything, What is the What provides a clearer understanding of war and the personal cost of war than any political or military history that could be written.