American War is narrated sometime in the early 22nd century by Benjamin Chestnut; it's about his aunt, Sarat. (How Benjamin knows so much detail of SaAmerican War is narrated sometime in the early 22nd century by Benjamin Chestnut; it's about his aunt, Sarat. (How Benjamin knows so much detail of Sarat's life becomes clear at the end; his biographer's perspective allows for the inclusion of articles and documents that flesh out the story's context.) From her family's cabin to a refugee camp, from the tomboyish games of childhood to her teenage years as a rebel fighter and what she suffers as a consequence, the narrative follows Sarat for over twenty years.
We first encounter Sarat as a six-year-old girl in Louisiana circa 2075, as the Second American Civil War is beginning. Its cause is the South's refusal to accept the Sustainable Future Act, which bans the use of fossil fuels. The nation splits between the United States in the North and the secessionist Southern states. Further divisions exist in the South: 'the Mag' (Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia) forms the heart of the 'rebel Red'; the surrounding states are viewed with suspicion; South Carolina is quarantined after the outbreak of a plague nicknamed 'the slow'; Texas is subsumed by the Mexican Protectorate.
While I was reading American War, the phrase good old-fashioned storytelling continually popped into my head, without me really understanding what I (or some rogue part of my brain) meant by it. There was something about it that reminded me of certain books I read as a child, like Watership Down by Richard Adams – books that seem content to take their time weaving a make-believe world, books that trust you to have the patience to memorise invented terms, understand the tensions between myriad rival groups, and keep referring back to a detailed fantasy map. This dystopian America is richly realised, full of the sort of detail that might make a less interesting and/or well-written novel drag. Whether you find the wider picture believable or not, the details make it so.
After I finished reading the book, I kept thinking of another phrase. I felt as though I'd emerged from it. Emerged. A bit weatherbeaten, a bit changed, unlikely to forget these characters, with the same slight sense of disorientation you get when you come out of a cinema into a bright sunny day. It is completely absorbing and emotionally wrenching. I was surprised by how fiercely I ended up rooting for Sarat and how desperate I was to know more about the history of this version of society. (I just couldn't get enough of the 'factual' inserts, which include extracts from textbooks, history books and memoirs, news articles from the early days of the war, legal documents, letters and interviews.)
Having read this, I'm really surprised more people aren't talking about it – it seems to have been published in the UK with little fanfare and next to no social media buzz. For those interested in reading more diversely, it seems a perfect fit: it's by a non-white author, has a queer black female protagonist, and deals with topical themes of a) how class cleavages and the North/South divide impact US politics and b) how climate change might affect Western society and the international balance of power. Lest that sound too much like it's just ticking boxes or preaching about ~issues~, it is also in-cre-di-bly well-written, immaculately constructed, and moving. One of my books of the year, for sure.
(Rating would be 4.5 stars if that were possible. This didn't quite have the intangible quality that would tip it into personal favourite territory; nevertheless, it is a novel I feel I will be thinking about for a long time.)
I received a review copy of American War from the publisher through NetGalley.