Behind the long-winding novels about tragedy after tragedy in developing countries, behind the magazines full of pictures staring down the eyes of the underprivileged, behind the articles soaked with heart wrenching quotes of the displaced, stands Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer. A startlingly emotional piece, he encapsulates what it means to leave a land that has carried you your entire life. Stirring and poetic, Hosseini’s picture book captures the humanity and sorrow of a group that is often dehumanized and abused, each page further proving how refugees are simply people reaching for safety.
In Western society, hearing about trouble in the Middle East has become so common that it’s akin to small talk. However violent and treacherous the war is, it’s still distant enough that it can be easy to forget all they are going through. That is, of course, until a picture of a 3-year-old Syrian boy lying dead at the shore of the Mediterranean Sea while attempting to escape with his family surfaced in September 2015. The picture quickly went viral, jolting people to care, to see what the crisis is doing to people. In fact, it was this same picture that inspired Khaled Hosseini to write Sea Prayer.
Filled with watercolor illustrations that seem to soak the very pages and lonely pieces of text, this short work of fiction takes readers through the mind of a worried father as he waits with his young son Marwan for a boat that can (hopefully) take them to a better place. As he holds Marwan close, he tells stories of how Syria used to be: sun-drenched and warm and familiar. With slight political references, he recounts how his own land became increasingly foreign to him. Through each flip of the page, all Marwan and his father have lost becomes heart-wrenchingly clear, as he tosses over the conflict between the necessity to leave war-stricken Syria and the love he feels for the country he is being forced to leave.
A refugee’s story is not a simple one, certainly not one that can tie itself up into a neat little knot with the limited words and pages of a picture book. And Sea Prayer didn’t do that. It didn’t have to. It wasn’t about the way Marwan and his father’s story ended, but how they felt while on the edge of the unknown. The refreshingly uncommon format stunningly portrayed the intertwined emotions of the father, without being simplistic. Hosseini focuses on what the story really is: a father trying to find a better life for his son.
In Khaled Hosseini’s other novels like And the Mountains Echoed and A Thousand Splendid Suns, it’s obvious that he is no stranger to generous amounts of imagery. But here, the imagery takes a life of its own, shaping into something abstract, intangible, untouchable. You can almost feel the lush and ripe sun of Syria shining into your eyes. You can almost feel the swelling sound of the clamor and crowd of a bazaar in Homs. Each words melts into the next, taking on a form of writing drenched in lyricism. However, Hosseini’s leap into prose never forgets the main plot of the piece, and remains concise with staccato sentences.
Of course, there’s not a lot of room for words to be wasted, as the black ink is often lonely or sometimes absent against the startlingly white pages. Somehow, though, it never feels like the actual story is absent of language. It is a testament to how much Hosseini has mastered his craft, that he can do so much with a few sentences and manage to capture the wistfulness and love between father and son.
Even Hosseini’s writing would not be enough to completely display the mix of the father’s feelings of grief-tainted homesickness without the hauntingly hazy illustrations by Dan Williams, who has illustrated for Hosseini before in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Through each clear press of the brush to the page, the feelings attached to places and the lush landscape are captured. The illustrations often devour entire pages, forcing the readers to come face-to-face with scenes of war, just as the father and Marwan did.
William’s work demonstrates the root of the fear of the father: the threatening nature of the unknown. The illustrations work to amplify and cushion the sparse text, supporting the words and justifying their meaning.
Williams’ use of color is one of the defining aspects of the book, making the tone of each scene obvious. Warm and earthy tones are used for happier moments, showing Syria as it was, with sunlight dripping off trees and clay-toned buildings. On the other hand, deep blues and brown-grays pull the reader into the conflict that soon sweeps over the country, dampening the mood. Just because it’s obvious, though, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Actually, its adds a simple and beautiful contrast to balance out Hosseini’s elegantly abstract writing.
REVIEW: Hosseini’s Mountains resonates with the often difficult ingredients of family life
Hosseini plays with rich imagery in his 2013 novel And the Mountains Echoed, a startlingly raw narrative about family relationships. A work most well-defined by its chapters told through multiple characters, Hosseini carefully explores the darks corners of each characters’ mind, the poignant descriptions never letting the readers misunderstand even the most difficult characters. Even though the subplots can get melodramatic at times, Hosseini has a certain talent for making the wildest stories seem surprisingly real, weaving together a narrative that blossoms as you get deeper and deeper into the story.
The swooping brushwork often carries miscellaneous strokes of blue, portraying the melancholy beauty Syria holds within the father’s imagination. At times, red bleeds across rolling green landscapes when the father references his wife, Marwan’s mother, adding notes of tenderness and love to a narrative caused by political strife. Perfectly encompassing the father’s feelings as a refugee searching for a better life, the illustrations capture the memories he has buried deep in the Syrian soil.
Take away the fact they are refugees, fleeing from violence in the only country they ever knew. Take away the fact that Marwan is a child who has only ever witnessed violence and trauma no person, let alone child, should have to see. Take away the fact that their very existences have been politicized. In the end, they are at the mercy of the sea. It’s something the father must accept that even he can’t protect Marwan from. All he can do is pray.
Ashita Wagh is a pop culture critic for Oswego East’s online news magazine the Howl