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Welcome to our comprehensive audiobook review of “What is the What” by Dave Eggers. In this emotional and thought-provoking journey, Eggers takes us through the story of a Sudanese refugee’s journey to America. We will explore the central themes, characters, and writing style of the book. Additionally, we will discover the experience of listening to the book in audiobook format. Join us as we delve deeper into this profound work and its impact on readers.

Key Takeaways

  • Dave Eggers’ “What is the What” takes readers on a journey through the eyes of a Sudanese refugee.
  • The book explores themes of displacement, identity, and human resilience in the face of adversity.
  • Eggers uses unique narrative techniques to enhance the reader’s experience.
  • The audiobook version of “What is the What” is a must-listen for anyone seeking an immersive experience.
  • The book has received critical acclaim, sparking important discussions about the refugee experience and human rights.

Overview of “What is the What”

Published in 2006, “What is the What” is a novel by Dave Eggers that depicts the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee. The book is a blend of fiction and Deng’s real-life experiences, giving readers a harrowing account of the tumultuous times Deng faced in his homeland.

As a writer, Dave Eggers is known for his unique style of blending fact and fiction to produce remarkable literary works. He is also the founder of McSweeney’s Publishing, an independent publishing house known for its innovative works.

Central Themes

The central themes of “What is the What” stem from Deng’s refugee experience, including the displacement of people during the civil war in Sudan and the refugee crisis in Africa. The novel also explores identity, exile, hope, and the resilience of human existence.

Through the protagonist, readers receive a glimpse of the adversity that displaced people face seeking refuge in foreign countries. The book also highlights the importance of activism in alleviating the refugee crisis and inspiring hope in a world that can be unforgiving.

Plot Summary

Plot summary What is the What

“What is the What” by Dave Eggers is a gripping novel about the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who navigates through unimaginable adversity. The book opens with Deng’s harrowing escape from his home village in Southern Sudan following the onset of civil war. He journeys on foot through the dangerous terrain of Sudan, facing starvation, illness, and violence, until he reaches a refugee camp in Kenya.

In the camp, Deng’s story becomes entwined with both the other refugees and the aid workers who have come to assist them. Despite slight improvements in his living conditions, Deng is forced to confront new challenges daily. He grapples with the realities of refugee life, including violence, illness, and an uncertain future.

After spending several years in the camp, Deng eventually has the opportunity to resettle in America. The cultural differences and the new-world struggles he encounters prove to be overwhelming at times, but Deng refuses to let these obstacles defeat him. The book concludes with Deng’s continued efforts to find a sense of place and purpose in his new home.

The challenges Deng faces along the way:

Challenges Location
Evading escapees, including the rebel soldiers or Murahaleen fighters Southern Sudan
Death of friends and loved ones, including his mother Southern Sudan
Lack of access to basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter Southern Sudan
Physical exhaustion and illness Throughout Sudan and the refugee camp
Cultural shock and adjustment United States
Emotional and psychological trauma Southern Sudan, refugee camp, and the United States

Despite everything he has been through, Deng’s story is one of resilience and hope. His journey is a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by millions of refugees worldwide and the unwavering strength of the human spirit.

Character Analysis

In “What is the What,” the central character is Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee. Other key characters include his family members, friends, and fellow refugees. Through their experiences, the novel explores themes of displacement, identity, and the struggles of immigration.

Valentino is depicted as a resilient and resourceful individual whose journey from Sudan to Kenya and eventually the United States is fraught with danger and hardship. As the novel unfolds, readers witness Valentino’s growth and development as he navigates complex relationships and seeks to find a sense of belonging in a new and unfamiliar world.

What is the What offers a striking portrayal of the human condition in which characters must overcome adversity and face unimaginable challenges. Through their story, a deeper understanding of the power of hope and empathy in the face of struggle is revealed.

Writing Style and Narrative Technique

writing style and narrative technique

In “What is the What,” Dave Eggers employs a unique writing style that combines a straightforward narrative with poignant reflections on displacement, perseverance, and identity. The story is told from the perspective of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy who flees Sudan and settles in the United States.

Eggers uses a first-person narrator to immerse readers in the protagonist’s experiences. Throughout the book, Valentino reflects on his journey, childhood memories, and current challenges, creating a deeply personal and emotional narrative. Eggers’ prose is clear and concise, yet evocative and impactful.

Additionally, Eggers employs a range of narrative techniques to convey the complexity and depth of Valentino’s experiences. He uses flashbacks to highlight important moments in Valentino’s past, employs imagery to paint vivid pictures of the landscape and environment, and incorporates thematic repetition to underscore the book’s central messages.


Eggers’ use of imagery is particularly notable, as it enriches the reading experience and provides the reader with vivid sensory impressions. For example, when Valentino discusses the Sudanese landscape, he describes “the thorn trees and the scrub grass, the cracked red earth, and the low hills fading into the horizon.” Through Eggers’ use of imagery, readers can visualize the stark beauty of the landscape and understand the profound impact that it has on Valentino’s life.


Eggers’ use of repetition is similarly impactful, as it underscores the book’s central themes and underscores their importance. For example, he repeats the phrase “What is the What” throughout the book, inviting readers to consider what identity means, and how it shapes an individual’s experiences. Similarly, he repeats phrases like “I am a Lost Boy” and “my country is in my brain” to reinforce the psychological impact of displacement.

Themes Explored

Throughout the pages of “What is the What,” author Dave Eggers touches on powerful themes that resonate with readers. One of the primary themes explored is displacement, as the story follows the journey of a young Sudanese boy forced to flee his home and seek refuge in neighboring countries. The theme of identity also plays a significant role as the protagonist struggles to maintain his sense of self in the face of adversity.

The theme of resilience is also central to the narrative, as the protagonist faces numerous challenges but never loses hope or succumbs to despair. The book explores the depths of human suffering and the power of hope to overcome even the most difficult circumstances. Through this theme, Eggers delivers an inspiring message of perseverance and strength.

Themes in “What is the What”

Theme Description
Displacement The protagonist is forced to flee his home and navigate war-torn Sudan and Kenya.
Identity The protagonist struggles to maintain his sense of self in the face of adversity.
Resilience The protagonist faces numerous challenges but never loses hope or succumbs to despair.

The themes explored in “What is the What” elevate the story from a simple memoir to a powerful examination of the human experience. Eggers’ deft handling of these themes creates a work of literature that resonates with readers long after the final page is turned.

Audiobook Experience

If you’re looking for a unique and immersive way to experience “What is the What,” the audiobook version is an excellent option. This audiobook edition was narrated by Dion Graham, an experienced and talented voice actor who brings a depth and emotion to the story that will keep you engaged from start to finish.

The audio production quality of this edition is exceptional, with clear and crisp audio that captures every nuance of the story. Whether you’re listening on headphones or through a speaker system, the sound design ensures a high-quality listening experience.

The audiobook version of “What is the What” enhances the storytelling by adding an auditory dimension. You can fully immerse yourself in the rich descriptions and dialogue of the book, which transports you to the character’s world. Graham’s performance adds a personal touch to the story, enabling listeners to feel as though they are having a conversation with the protagonist and experiencing his journey alongside him.

Reception and Criticism

Since its publication, “What is the What” has received widespread critical acclaim and has been well-received by readers. Many have praised the book’s unique narrative style and the way that Eggers handles the difficult subject matter.

However, there has been some criticism of the book. Some readers have commented that the characters are not fully developed, and the plot can be difficult to follow at times. Others have argued that Eggers’ portrayal of Sudan and its people is overly simplistic and perpetuates negative stereotypes.

Despite these criticisms, the book remains a popular and well-respected work of contemporary literature. “What is the What” has won numerous awards, including the Prix M├ędicis for best foreign novel in France, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Overall, the reception and criticism of “What is the What” underscores the book’s significance as a work that challenges readers to both engage with difficult questions about identity, displacement, and suffering, while also celebrating the strength and resilience of the human spirit.


After diving deep into Dave Eggers’ “What is the What” audiobook, we can confidently say that it is a must-read for anyone seeking a thought-provoking and emotional experience. The story’s themes of resilience, hope, and identity resonate long after the final chapter.

Through our review, we have explored the book’s compelling plot, unique writing style, and diverse range of characters. The audiobook version adds an extra layer of immersion, thanks to an excellent narrator and high-quality audio production.

“What is the What” has received critical acclaim and sparked meaningful conversations among readers. Its impact on society and literature cannot be ignored.

Therefore, we highly recommend this audiobook for anyone looking to expand their literary horizons and gain a deeper appreciation for the human experience.

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