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"What is the What" Book Review

By Chengnan Li //


Dave Eggers’s “What is the What” narrates the journey of Achak Deng, one of the 20,000 Lost Boys who walked thousands of miles from their decimated villages in Sudan to relative safety in Ethiopia and later Kenya. Along his journey, Achak faced the constant threat of slaughter from militias and wild animals, while also having to endure through starvation, dehydration, disease, loneliness, fatigue, and the seemingly endless varieties of cruelty. Despite its harrowing subject matter, the book isn’t just a recollection of horrifying and depressing experiences. Achak also encounters new friendships, budding romances, and surprising manifestations of human kindness. The intimate relationships he develops with other characters turn this account of a terrible tragedy into an ironically pleasurable experience. 


Although the story is long and gruesome, by the time you reach its stunning conclusion, you realize that the cumulative weight of each and every word contributes to the powerful message at the end. “Whatever I do, I will tell these stories … I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”


Indeed, reading “What is the What” makes it impossible to pretend that Achak Deng or any of the other Lost Boys or any of the refugees who suffered similar fates to his do not exist. Dave Eggers has so clearly outlined and vividly depicted the tragedy in East Africa that it is impossible for anyone who reads the book to ignore the devastations that occurred there. Thus, the novel forces us to examine the world around us and to realize that confronting our hardships is more of a collective battle than an individual struggle.

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