The novel is Deng's experiences narrated by him after he has been living in America for several years, but the prose is all Eggers.
The story begings with Deng in America. Hoodlums break into his apartment and subdue him and steal all his belongings. Deng starts speaking to his captors to himself (one could spend an hour just admiring how Eggers structured this brilliant form of narration; it plays so naturally). Deng shares his formative years, growing up in a pastoral agricultural Dinka village in the south of Sudan. Through Deng's young eyes we witness the beginning of the Second Sudanese Civil War.
For those of you unfamiliar with anything to do with Sudan prior to the Darfur conflict (which last I checked is fixing to placed on the shelf next to the Free Tibet movement), the Second Sudanese Civil War was one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, lasting from 1983 to 2005 and resulting in the deaths of more than 2 million people.
Deng is transformed into a Lost Boy virtually over night as he ripped from his village when Murahaleen (Arab) raiders come to tear his town asunder. The raiders run the standard playbook for pillaging and wanton savagery, as Deng struggles to escape. In doing so, he is launched on an odyssey across the wilderness of Sudan and the conflict that would engulf his nation for more than the next two decades.
Eggers' achievements in this autobiographical novel are monumental. It's a modern epic which stands tall amongst the forest of the genre. Eggers' seamlessly weaves Deng's present and past in an honest and plain voice that somehow manages to paint a vivid landscape of war-torn Sudan and the refugee camps of Ethiopia.
What is the What is a deeply satisfying read. It grants the reader a unique perspective, a portal through time and space, the experiences of a nation, and the life of a boy existing there and then and here and now.
My yarmulke is off to you Mr. Eggers.