Sea Prayer is a letter from a father to his sleeping son as they await a boat at the break of dawn. Alongside the thousands of awaiting refugees, all searching the tide for a promise of a better life, the father whispers a tale of remembrance and hope to his son, Marwan.
The book begins with the father recollecting memories of his childhood in the summers spent in Syria. As he reminisces the tales of his boyhood, he paints a picture of beautiful pastures, dam-filled creeks, sooty farmhouses, and the bustling city of Homs. From the swaying of distant olive trees to the clanking of his grandmother’s pots, every memory is sprinkled with longing, nostalgia, and regret for what Syria has become.
As the father continues, he begins to describe the Syria that Marwan has come to know, starting with the protests and the sieges, then the bombs that hailed down from the sky, and finally the aftermath of starvation, blood, destruction, and death. Times of laughter and serenity have long since passed — replaced by the need for survival. With these memories from ages ago to the mere days before they had fled, the place that they had called “home” their entire lives emerges, soon to be left behind.
But facing the open sea through the moonlit night, the father retraces his hope for the boy, who is fast asleep against his chest, and promises him all that he can. Though he is powerless to change the uncertainty that lies ahead, the father continues to pray, for his son’s safety, for his happiness, and his future — “Inshallah, inshallah, how I pray the sea knows this.”
Sea Prayer was inspired by the story of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned while trying to reach safety in 2015. The heart-breaking photograph of the lifeless body washed up on the shore shocked people across the world, finally bringing to light the severity of the Syrian refugee crisis. As an attempt to further raise awareness about the crisis, the story of Marwan and his father was born.
Unlike Hosseini’s other books, such as The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns, Sea Prayer is structured more like a picture book than a full-length novel. Written in spare prose accompanied by watercolor illustrations, the writing is almost like poetry in conveying the rawness of the father’s emotions. However, it does not deviate from Hosseini’s usual direct and visceral style of writing, where every word has the ability to practically wound the reader. Albeit short, the conciseness of every line, along with the weight it adds to the reader’s understanding of the father’s heart, makes it just as effective and meaningful as any of Hosseini’s other works.
One of my favorite features of the book are the watercolor artworks, which I felt conveyed the message of the story as much as the writing did, if not more. Vibrant colors and full-page illustrations aren’t typical in a Young Adult book, much less a historical fiction genre, so seeing the effects of complementary artwork in comparison to just a plain text novel helped me realize the value in different methods of communication and interpretation.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, especially because the length of the book allows for it to be a quick read. As someone who adores Hosseini’s works, I thoroughly enjoyed Sea Prayer as well, although the drastic difference in its style caught me off guard at first. In reading the book, I think I was able to empathize a little more with the father and the victims of the refugee crisis, so it was a really rewarding and insightful read for me.