What is the What
Written by Dave Eggers
Reviewed by Jonah Huang, age 18
They walked hundreds of miles across desert and wilderness, in blisteringly hot daylight and in the blind darkness of night. They were hunted by lions, pursued by violence, threatened by disease. Some were slowly claimed by death. They walked to escape a brutal war, to find freedom, to find peace, and to find hope. These were the lost boys of Sudan, boys who lost their homes, their parents, and their childhoods to a bloody civil war.
What is the What, by Dave Eggers, is the story of one of the Lost Boys: Valentino Achak Deng. His tale is a long one, riddled with challenges, tragedy, humor, and hope. What is the What is a fictional novel of Valentino’s life. The events, however, are real. Valentino is real. His friends are real and his experiences are real.
Valentino’s long journey is told in pieces, unraveled through powerful narration. The narration of the novel switches off between the present and the past, contrasting Valentino’s challenges in Sudan and in America.
What is the What begins with a jolting incident in present day America. The events that follow allow Valentino to tell his tale. His memories include his peaceful childhood, and his journey from his small Sudanese village to refugee cities in Ethiopia, to refugee cities in America.
What is the What is an epic tale told through the eyes of someone who has experienced it first hand. Valentino’s voice, captured perfectly by the author, is unique, flavorful, and original. It is the voice of a humble person trapped in deadly circumstances, the voice of a person who is ready for anything, the voice of someone who searches for and tells truth.
What is the What is an emotionally moving, wrenching work of art that captures the essence of humanity. It is a fictional novel, but it is not entirely fictitious. Valentino Achak Deng is a real person guided by real events. Some conversations are made up and some characters are combined as one character. However, the events—even some of the most unbelievable—are true. It is the truth of these events that moved me the most, making them that much more powerful.
Because it is such a powerful novel, I strongly recommend What is the What. But the novel also features mature themes, and I think it would be most appropriate for readers 14 and up.