Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini, illustrated by Dan Williams

All wars generate their own body of literature – sometimes elegiac or reflective, sometimes jingoistic or triumphal – but always containing, in the lines on the page, a depth of human misery that those of us lucky enough to live their lives in peace can only guess at.

I have no doubt that in the future readers will have a substantial body of writing – fiction, poetry and non-fiction – that bears witness to the terrible war that has torn apart Syria over the past seven or eight years but for those of us living through the news of the conflict as it still unfolds, books like this one come as dispatches from the frontline of suffering.

Hosseini, a native Afghan, is of course well placed to understand the impact of war – his own novels attest to the impact of war on individuals caught up in a conflict they do not want and cannot control. So it’s not a surprise to find that his response to the Syrian war is an emotional one – there’s no political stance and no analysis here – and it’s one that focuses on those who are the most innocent victims, the children.

What Hosseini has produced is a letter, almost a prose poem, written by a father to his son as they prepare to try and escape the terror of war by confronting another nightmare – the hazardous sea crossing to safety in Europe in a tiny boat at the mercy of a raging sea. The letter opens with the father’s attempt to draw a picture of life before war – the colours of the city (Homs), the vibrant life, the tolerance of different faiths living side-by-side – it’s a wistful and beautiful picture:

“We woke in the mornings/ to the stirring of olive trees in the breeze”

But the tone changes sharply when first protest and then war comes

“First came the protests./ Then the siege”

The city changes, homes and whole streets are destroyed, until eventually it’s impossible to stay and the family have to become refugees seeking a way out of the war-zone. The letter is being composed for Marwan, the father’s son, as his family sit on a beach, waiting for a boat and thinking about the perils that await them. The father offers Marwan some reassurance but inside he is all fear:

“Hold my hand./ Nothing bad will happen.”

 “These are only words… all I can think tonight is/ how deep the sea,/ and how vast, how indifferent.”

All he can do is offer up a prayer for their deliverance – but, especially, for the deliverance of Marwan, his father’s most precious jewel.

Hosseini doesn’t give us an easy or uplifting answer here – we have to leave them adrift on the vast green sea. The book was inspired, we’re told at the end, by the fate of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian refugee whose drowning hit the headlines when pictures of his body, washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean came to public attention. So, we know the outcome for Marwan and his family could go either way – these are human lives left to chance.

Much of the book’s power comes from the superb water-colour illustrations of Dan Williamson. Publishers Weekly have captured the value of the illustrations perfectly:

“Williams’s loosely stroked ink-and-wash spreads, the corals and greens of the Syrian countryside give way to war’s gray shadows and the sea’s blue hues. Expansive views of sky and water both temper the text’s emotional build and render the figures in them small and fragile.”

This is a book that defies categorisation and clearly doesn’t have any age-specific audience in mind. It seems to me that readers aged 10 or above would be able to relate to the story and, combined with the illustrations, all ages will find the emotional power of a father’s letter to his son a way into thinking more about the impact of war on innocent civilians.


Terry Potter

October 2018

( This review was first published on The Letterpress Project website)

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