Book Review: What is the What by Dave Eggers

What is the WhatWhat’s it about?

What is the What is the story of a man, who, as a boy, was separated from his family in Sudan’s brutal civil war; who trekked across Africa’s punishing wilderness with thousands of other children; who survived arial bombardment and attacks by the militias and wild animals; who ate whatever he could find or nothing at all; who, as a boy, considered ending his life to end the suffering; and who eventually made it to America, where a new and equally challenging journey began. His name is Valentino Achak Deng, and in this novel Dave Eggers tells the extraordinary true story of his incredible journey.

My thoughts

“…the camp at the edge of the world” these few words basically sum up Valentino’s view of Kakuma (meaning nowhere) – the refugee camp where he spent years following his escape from his home village in Sudan as a young boy.

This was our book club choice for April and if I’m totally honest not one I would pick for myself. I can appreciate the difficulties and empathise but it’s just not the kind of book I’d pick to read in my spare time – however, it is one of those books that makes you feel better about your own circumstances whatever they are having read it. It does make you thankful for living where you live and having the comforts and things we all take for granted.

The author, Dave Eggers, has written this book about Valentino’s life but it’s written like an autobiography. The preface explains that all the major events are true but maybe some of the conversations etc were fictional. It switches between the present day and the past with ease and I felt this was actually well written and described in the tone of Valentino’s own voice. He directs his experiences to people he meets in America – gym clients, Michael, the nurse – and I think it’s a way of telling his story, as obviously at the time no-one was listening but now we, the reader are listening, but you do wonder which bits are true and which aren’t.

I don’t know if I can say that I ‘enjoyed’ this book, after all it’s about human suffering with harrowing scenes and experiences – some of it reads like it’s straight out of a movie. There are a LOT of horrifying scenes in this book but I found myself becoming desensitised to it. Maybe if the book had been a bit shorter it would have been more powerful.

The scene that impacted me the most – the scene of them fleeing from the camp in Ethiopia and crossing the river whilst being shot at with bodies floating past – just an awful vision. And, I was really saddened that Noriyaki didn’t make it.

That feeling of never being safe and always on your guard. I think he’d hoped that when he was resettled to America that he would be safe but unfortunately suffers the robbery at his home. The book also highlights all the things we take for granted and Valentino’s adjustment into life in America, even such simple things as using the refridgerator

I’m so glad that he found Moses in the camp, so many of his friends and family had been killed this was a little glimmer of happiness and hope.

I do wonder if the man in the desert was real or was it a mirage or a dream? And after finishing the book I still wasn’t sure what is the ‘what’. However, following our book club discussion, we thought that the ‘what’ is taking a chance and not taking and accepting what is in front of you – which is what Valentino did, he took the chance and went to the US. We also decided we didn’t like Valentino’s girlfriend Tabitha, but then we wondered if that was because 2 men had written her and that as Valentino from a country that doesn’t value women as equals this was why. As some of the other women characters and depicted that complimentary either, eg Miss Gladys.

You can learn more about Valentino’s experiences and foundation at

Read if you like biographies or non-fiction documentary style books.

Available on Amazon What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng