SEA PRAYER: A Book Review

On 2nd September 2015 an image flashed around the world that saddened and horrified us all. A young boy, later identified as Alan Kurdi, lay motionless on a pristine beach in Turkey, the dawn sun glowing around him. He was dead. During his three young years he knew only war in Syria; a war his parents fled to find safety. The photo of Alan touched everyone and inspired, nay, I would say, drove one famous writer to pen a short book, Sea Prayer.

Within Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer the words and illustrations are intrinsically linked, creating a wondrous work of art.

The first page starts as a letter (quasi-eulogy) to the narrator’s son, Marwan, and it recalls the beauty of life in Homs. The father describes his childhood when he had woken “to the stirrings of olive trees in the breeze/to the bleating of your grandmother’s goat”.

Tender, colourful watercolours by Dan Williams accompany the story. On one page the vibrant red of poppies match the red of his wife’s coat, as she holds her son’s hand wandering through a field.

It’s a time of peace, tranquillity, harmony. In the old city there was “a mosque for us Muslims,/a church for our Christian neighbours,/and a grand souk for us all”.

Soon this life of normality is transformed into one “like some long-dissolved rumour”.

As war approaches the watercolours darken, greys, blacks, browns dominate. These are more powerful than ever, conveying the despair and sense of hopelessness. As the illustrations change, so does the language for a few pages, the short staccato sentences echoing the weapons.

“The skies spitting bombs.

Marwan’s childhood is one where he has learned “dark blood is better news/than bright.” His bathing places are not the idyllic creeks of his father’s youth, rather that of bomb craters. This is not a childhood.

As the family join thousands of other refugees fleeing their country I find myself physically pained, the long march pictured across two pages, no words necessary.

Father and son find themselves on a beach with many others where they stand “in the glow of this three-quarter moon”. Here the father makes his promise: “Nothing bad will happen.”

A hollow promise as the father recognises more than ever “How powerless I am to protect you from it.”

The book ends with the beauty of sunlight across a soft morning beach. A new day, a new beginning, new hope.

Three certainties not afforded to all.

This is a book I’ve read many times, each occasion more tear-eyed than before. It is beautiful, heartbreaking, emotional. It is a testament to the human spirit, to love and compassion within every one of us.

Throughout Khaled Hosseini writes with flair and skill, the poetic prose magically drawing the reader into the story. It’s deceptively simple, almost a lullaby in the gentlest of tones telling the cruellest of truths.

If you come to Sea Prayer expecting a lengthy literary novel such as his brilliant The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns or And The Mountains Echoed you will probably be disappointed.

If you expect to catch the sublime gifted language and story to remember for all time by this renowned author, you are in for a treat.

This is a book that crosses all genres, it’s for children, for adults, for humanity — it’s a precious gift to hold it within one’s hands and heart. Everyone who reads it will be, as I was, humbled by its message told on behalf of all refugees who endure so much but whose voices are seldom heard.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars.

AVAILABLE: From bookshops, libraries, online such as Amazon UK and Amazon US

PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Books

123 thoughts on “SEA PRAYER: A Book Review

  1. Marylee MacDonald says:

    Knowing of my interest in Turkey (I have written a chapbook, THE RUG BAZAAR, set in Turkey), one of my readers in Italy sent me a book recommendation for MORE, by Turkish author Hakan Günday. The novel is a long one and has gotten much acclaim, although so far only 8 Amazon reviews. After finishing the book, I was stunned that such a work of literature could exist without my having heard of it, and I was embarrassed that I had not.

    I will definitely get Khalid Housseini’s book. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I love the humanity of his writing, and seeing his words paired with illustrations of the refugee migration can only make his text even more meaningful, for, as you say, the image of that long train of humanity streaming across two pages needs no words.

    For anyone curious about adding to their knowledge of this exodus of humanity, here is a bit more about Günday’s novel. In this case, too, a child is involved, but in quite a different role.

    “Imagine a nine-year-old child assisting his father with the family business—the ruthless smuggling of humans. Imagine this child’s apprenticeship in profit and survival and unspeakable cruelties that numb him to what it means to be human. Imagine this child’s graduation from bystander to killer. Hakan Günday will take you there in his unflinching and momentous novel More.” —Ursula Hegi, New York Times bestselling author of Stones from the River

    “The importance of this novel . . . lies in its horrific portrayals of refugees fleeing desperate situations. . . . [A] complex, Dostoyevsky-like inquiry into man’s capacity for evil.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

    • Annika Perry says:

      Marylee, thank you so much for your wonderful in-depth comment. Wow! Your comment about ‘More’ touched me deeply … what a powerful book. I had to read the blurb beginning twice to make sure I hadn’t got it wrong – a child as a human trafficker! I shudder and feel repelled by the thought yet compelled to read it. It is on my books to read list – having just finished ‘ The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ by Christy Lefteri I need a break from this horrendous tragic subject matter. Particularly following the 39 deaths in a lorry here in the South of England. I can tell you will appreciate and deeply be moved by Sea Prayer – a book filled with love and warmth, mingled with war and tragedy. I haven’t quite read or seen anything like it – a precious book.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Thank you so much, Norah. It’s precious beyond words and one that will stay with always! I can’t wait to read your review of it … please let me know when you’ve posted it as I sometimes miss posts!

      • Norah says:

        I purchased it and read it after reading your post last night, Annika. (That’s a benefit of ebooks.) I wasn’t thinking of writing a review. I’m not much good at that, but perhaps I’ll think about it. It is a lovely book and touched my heart. I’m so pleased I read your post. 🙂

  2. restlessjo says:

    I must seek this one out, Annika. I love the author, and there can be no more helpless feeling in the world than knowing that you cannot protect your child. Thanks for reviewing this. 🙂 🙂

    • Annika Perry says:

      Johanna, I hope you can get hold of this unique and moving book. I agree, the sense of helplessness is unimaginable and unbearable. After this book I read‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ … wonderfully written but so raw and true to life it almost became too much. Along with the tragic news here in the U.K. I felt overwhelmed…onto lighter books for a while! Sea Prayer is special … a gem of a book!

    • Annika Perry says:

      Jennifer, all his books are wonderful and The Kite Runner was incredible. It felt like watching a film so I couldn’t watch the actual one! Yes, obviously this is very different but even more precious in many ways. A worthy for your TBR list! Happy Reading! 😀📖

  3. roughwighting says:

    I can’t believe I didn’t know about this book. Annika – thank you for sharing this lovely review of a book that already has me crumbled in sadness at the unnecessary war-torn loss of life, yet uplifted that an author like Hosseini wrote such a lyrical book/essay/lament joined with a thoughtful illustrator. I’m off to get the book.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Pam, I’m deeply touched by your comment and how this review has affected you. I don’t want you to crumble, but events like this causes one to feel such deep sorrow. You are right though that with the gifted combination of Hoseeini and Williams this becomes an extraordinary tale of father and son, reflecting the lives of thousands, an important book that hopefully can reach those with power to effect change. Hosseini himself is deeply involved with refugee programs as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR and has also founded a foundation in his name. A book to treasure and one that will stay with you always. hugs xx

  4. radhikasreflection says:

    My daughter read it at a book store and made me buy it. She said she could read it over a hundred times, yet it would put forward a different perspective. On her insistence i too read it. Only then i realised why people fell in love with it. It connects directly to the heart.
    Annika your review has enhanced the beauty of the book. Like you rightly said it is a book for children, adults and the entire humanity.❤️

    • Annika Perry says:

      Radhika, you have a very wise and warm-hearted daughter and she is so right, this is a book that teaches us something with each reading, touching our souls deeper. Well done to her for insisting you bought it too and yes, “it connects directly to the heart.” I’m moved by your love for this book and see it has taken hold of you, and one that won’t leave you either. ❤️

      Thank you so much for saying my review enhanced the beauty of the book – that is all I wanted to do but was worried I might not achieve this.

      Following tragic news in the UK today, in a port not far from me, of 39 found dead in a lorry, I thought of this book once more. It never stops. A heavy day filled with tragedy and sadness.

      • radhikasreflection says:

        I showed your review of the book to my daughter, Annika. She agrees with me that it is beautifully composed. She was delighted to read your comment and she conveyed her regards to you. 💕
        The burden of tragedy is always overwhelming Annika. Prayers to the departed souls🙏

    • Annika Perry says:

      Andrea, the combination of the illustrations and story is stunning … and I couldn’t imagine one without the other! A powerful combination. I’ve seen the book on a couple of blogs but first read about it on BrainPickings – she introduces the most unusual and touching books.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Quite a few have said the same and I’m not surprised. It lay on my desk for a week – building up the courage to read it and also finding the time without busyness around me. Such a special story deserved my full attention. So glad you enjoyed the review and yes, all these stories are important and one can but hope they make a little (big) difference in the world.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Robbie, it definitely is a deeply emotional read – and even more so with each reading. I must have read it over ten times, taking my time, looks through all the illustrations, absorbing the words. One that will stay with me and a book I felt compelled to share here.

      Wishing you a lovely start to the week, Robbie! 😀

  5. Mike says:

    What a wonderful review of an outstanding book Annika. The words and pictures seem to compliment each other so effectively. I haven’t read the book yet and am not sure whether I can, because the subject is so emotional. It’s always the innocent who suffer in these situations and the options they face are almost impossible to imagine. We don’t realise how lucky we are, and that in different circumstances it could be us in those boats.


    • Annika Perry says:

      Mike, thank you so much for your heartfelt comment. To your last point first, I too often think how lucky we are, to live in safety and comfort – people fleeing situations as these have no life, no hope. Only the direst of circumstances would cause a family to set off on such a dangerous exodus.

      I too had reservations of reading the book and held back for a while as it lay on y desk. In the end, the beautiful haunting cover drew me in and I’ve read it many times since – it’s more heartbreaking each time, more real somehow.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Thank you, Mary and wow! I am touched that you are buying it following this review. It is a book that is calling out to be read, treasured. It is special to gift oneself special books at times.

    • Annika Perry says:

      That’s great, Christy and I am sure your library would have a copy. It is only a short book but still so much to cover – I originally thought this would be one of my shortest reviews!

  6. Carol Balawyder says:

    Annika, there is such tenderness and beauty in your review of Sea Prayer – a moving and heartbreaking story – a eulogy to young Alan Kurdi. Thank you for your review of this touching work of art. xxx

    • Annika Perry says:

      Carol, thank you so much for your wonderful and kind comment. 😀 You are right that this is a eulogy to Alan Kurdi and written with such tenderness and heart – the simplicity making the story even more powerful … the truth of these events overlayering the book as a whole. Xx

    • Annika Perry says:

      Jacqui, I know what you mean … the artistry of the illustrations and words is incredibly uplifting, yet the ultimate truth of what is happening overwhelmingly heartbreaking. As soon as I received the book and before I’d even read it, I knew this was one I had to share here! It is so special and about a subject more needs to be talked about and help given.

  7. laura bruno lilly says:

    Nothing more to add, but to say – I’ve added this to my Amazon wish list to purchase as gifts this holiday season…
    As you know, this is a subject near and dear to my heart…
    Thank you for bringing this to your slice of the blogging community’s attention.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Laura, warmest thanks for your lovely comment and what a moving idea to purchase this as gifts … I may well do the same; thank you for the idea. I can well imagine this has touched you deeply. Oh, I was compelled to share this here – and heartened by its warm emotional response. Surprisingly a lot of reviews on Amazon were sadly lukewarm.

  8. Bette A. Stevens says:

    Outstanding review for Hosseini’s poignant and powerful poetry, Annika! I’m a Khaled Hosseini fan and have a treasured hard cover copy of Sea Prayer on my coffee table. As soon as I saw the book, I knew I had to own it–not just borrow it from the library. Sharing!

    • Annika Perry says:

      Bette, that’s exactly how I felt … that this book is a keeper! How special that you have it on your coffee table and think I’ll bring mine downstairs next to ‘A Velocity of Being’. I’ve read all his books and love them but this will be my treasured one. Thank you so much for your lovely review, my friend! Hugs ❤️

  9. Jacquie Biggar says:

    I do remember that poor child and his father lying on a deceptively peaceful beach and it broke my heart. I fail to see how war benefits anyone, least of all the innocent children.
    Beautiful review, Annika. This is a new-to-me author, though I’ve heard of The Kite Runner. The quotes you shared were so emotive that I’m sure it would be an unforgettable read ❤

    • Annika Perry says:

      Jacquie, you are right about Sea Prayer being an unforgettable read … and it’s a book I will leave out on my coffee table for others to see. Where a young child should be resting on a beach after a morning of fun, Alan was rather no longer alive. This contrast of what should be and what was hit us all … and led to the author penning this book. How true that war blights the life of innocent people and children the most. So senseless and cruel. When will humanity learn? ❤️

    • Annika Perry says:

      Rebecca, I love that quote and how true! Hosseini has definitely writte a book that should not be forgotten! It will stay with me … the illustrations adding extraordinary poignancy.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Khaya, I think that is more than a fair assumption! I was running out of adjectives for the book and the emotions it evoked within me. Many thanks for reading and your comment.

  10. R A I N says:

    WHAT DID YOU DOOOO, Annika!?!?!?!??!??? 😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭 I don’t think I have ever felt my heart growing soo heavy and my throat choked as it was while reading this review! 😭😭😭😭 I have never read Sea Prayer but I….😭😭 Those pictures, your words…it’s just…TOO MUCH! ❤️😭😭

    A most lovely and heartbreaking review, hon! ☹️☹️😭😭❤️❤️💕💕💕

    • Annika Perry says:

      I think your crying emojiis sum up the emotions welling up inside when reading this book … and for some reason I felt more sad every time I came to the book. It does almost become too much – isn’t it just too much that this happens not once but thousands of times!

      Is it a book you think you might read? Many thanks for reading and your effusive comment, much appreciated.

  11. D. Wallace Peach says:

    Even your review left me in tears, Annika. I imagine the book would have me blubbering. What a stark and tragic juxtaposition of childhood wonder and senseless war. And such a gift of compassion for the children and parents who see their lives and hearts broken. Thank you for the beautiful review and heartfelt recommendation.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Diana, it is incredible how the author has brought so much into a relatively short book. You are so right about the juxtaposition of what should be a normal childhood and what this young boy has experienced. No child should have to witness such things, go through this. The stark reality is conveyed with discreet power which affects the reader even more. I feel for this book with my whole heart and soul – and decided not to reign in my emotions. Warmest thanks for your terrific comment – it means so much to me.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Jan, I wholeheartedly agree with you. It’s overwhelming and tragic how the evil deeds in this world never seem to lessen and to witness the horrific consequences on the innocent population. This book brings these consequences to us in an understandable format, concentrating on one man and his son. Yes, an incredible book and one I wanted to do justice do with this review.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Brigid, I couldn’t believe just as I started to draft the post the crisis in Syria started again with tens of thousands refugees. I felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness … nothing seems to change. Yet, it is a book that needs to be read. Haunting is definitely the word to describe the illustrations … once seen they seem engraved on my mind.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Natalie, I’m glad you feel it is a must-read – I felt the same as soon as I heard about it but been waiting until there was more stillness around me and within me to do full justice to the book.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Thank you so much, Teagan – I wanted to do justice to the book. The illustrations are so much part of book I thought I needed to share a couple to give a feel of Sea Prayer. A gifted artist! hugs xx

  12. Book Club Mom says:

    Fantastic review, Annika. I haven’t read Sea Prayer yet – I’ve been putting it off. So emotional, but necessary. I think since I just read Refugee by David Gratz I’m thinking about it more.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Barbara, than kyou so much. I must admit I had the book on my desk for a week before I opened it. I wanted to have the peace of mind and time to give it my full attention … glad I did. Yes, emotional, beautiful and a story that has to be told. I read your excellent and enticing review of Refugee and on my list of books to read. Think I need a break between the two.

  13. delphini510 says:

    Annika, I find your review quite extraordinary. With such beauty and tenderness you
    introduce and bring ” Sea Prayer ” by Khaled Hosseini straight into our hearts.

    ” almost a lullaby in the gentlest of tones telling the cruellest of truths.” you say and I find this speaks better than volumes. I have read his other books but will now definitely read this.
    The illustrations and words are like twinned, both so full of love and grief.
    I am also very taken with how you placed the book for your photos. Very sensitive – a budding photographer?

    Like most of us I am in disbelief of all killing and cruelty among mankind. How can this cruelty live within so many souls?

    Thanks you again Annika, for a superb review.


    • Annika Perry says:

      Wow! Miriam, warmest thanks for your heartfelt comment … this is a book for you but I just hope you don’t feel it too keenly. It beggars belief how cruelty in the world continues, seemingly unabated. I suppose one has to see the hope of the positive help given by many. The author here has set up a foundation to aid refugees and works as well as a goodwill ambassador for the UN to help refugees.

      Ahh … thank you so much for your kind words about my writing and from a poet as yourself that means a lot. I’m touched how you find that ‘The illustrations and words are like twinned, both so full of love and grief.’ So true!

      Yes, I love photography but am still at the amateur stage! For the book I did hang it in my grandfather’s fishing net to bring a connection with the sea (although in the end this is not really visible).

      Happy Reading & Writing … always looking out for your latest poem! 😀❤️🖋📖

    • Annika Perry says:

      Jill, it is an intensely moving book and one that has touched me deeply. The illustrations are incredible and match the words perfectly! After the first reading, I just knew I had to share it here! Do you let me know your thoughts when you have a chance to read Sea Prayer. xx

  14. navasolanature says:

    Oh, Annika, your review is also moving. I was in Syria and Turkey in the 1970s and follow closely what has been happening. We just did a catch up on Simon Reeve’s in Turkey too. This seems a very important book to keep our hearts open and understand life in peacetime and then with bombs, shelling all around. Such destruction and each person a life, each child a future destroyed. But some may say the book is too sad to give. Sometimes we protect our children from such sadness and negativity and ourselves. I am grappling with how I write this in to the new opening of my book.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Georgina, warmest thanks for your heartfelt and detailed comment. Wow! You were in Syria and Turkey in the ’70s. Were you working there? No wonder you watch the news about this region with particular interest and knowledge. I’ve always realised how lucky I am to live in a peaceful part of the world, but also how fragile that can be. This book is a reminder to us all. Oh, you are right, I wouldn’t read this to young children … but otherwise, one that highlights the plight of refugees with artistic poetic skill. I haven’t heard about Simon Reeve before but now see how popular he is and that he is giving a talk near me – off to get some tickets!

      I am intrigued by your final sentence, Georgina. Are you writing a new beginning to your book? I think your book will be aimed at the YA market … in which case I think they prefer straight forward honesty and openness, whilst giving space for hope. We all need that! Good luck!

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