What Is the What by Dave Eggers Book Review

One of Sudan's Lost Boy Struggles to Survive and Thrive

Valentino Achak Deng speaking at a conference
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

What Is the What is an astonishing, eye-opening, and heartbreaking book that defies classification. Once you’ve read it, the story of Valentino Achak Deng refuses to leave your mind. Even if you’re not familiar with the Lost Boys and their struggles to escape from war-torn Sudan, you’ll be drawn into this pseudo-autobiography. What Is the What tells a devastating story but never plays for sympathy. Instead, the hope, complexity, and tragedy of the situation take center stage.

Valentino’s story stands alone as powerful and worth reading and Eggers’ superb writing compellingly brings Valentino’s voice and story to life. The novel is a successful portrayal of a large-scale tragedy through one man’s story though it does include graphic depictions of suffering and death.


Valentino Achak Deng was just a boy when Sudan’s civil war found its way to his village. Forced to flee, he walks for months to Ethiopia and later Kenya with hundreds of other boys. Resettled in the US, Valentino struggles to adjust to the mixed blessings of his new life.

Book Review

What Is the What is drawn from the real-life story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The title comes from a local story about the reward of choosing what’s known over what’s unknown. As they flee the destruction around them, though, the Lost Boys are constantly forced to choose the unknown future of refugee camps and life in America.

What Is the What describes the interminable walking, the militia and bombs, starvation and disease, and lions and crocodiles that kill countless young boys as they attempt to find refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya. The obstacles of their journey are so astonishing and heartbreaking that you — and they — often wonder how they can go on.

Eventually, many of the Lost Boys gain entry to the United States, and they form a vibrant community displaced across the country but constantly in touch by cell phone. Valentino ends up in Atlanta, adjusting to the fact that America offers its own evils and injustices. His past and present are masterfully interwoven through Valentino’s habit of mentally recounting his story to the different people he meets.

Reading Valentino’s horrifying story can make the mere act of reading a book feel frivolous. The power of literature, though, is to bring remote stories to life. Eggers is famous for his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. That title could easily apply to What Is the What.

Book Discussion Group Questions

If you've chosen this book for your discussion group, here are some sample questions.

  • Why do you think Valentino/Dominic/Achak had so many names?
  • Why do you think Valentino directs his story towards Michael, Julian, and the clients of the gym?
  • Which one of Valentino’s friends did you like or remember the most?
  • Did you know the plight of the Lost Boys before you read this book? Did it change what you thought about the situation?
  • What details impacted you the most? 
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Your Citation
Newman, Bess. "What Is the What by Dave Eggers Book Review." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-what-by-dave-eggers-book-review-362348. Newman, Bess. (2020, August 28). What Is the What by Dave Eggers Book Review. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-what-by-dave-eggers-book-review-362348 Newman, Bess. "What Is the What by Dave Eggers Book Review." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-what-by-dave-eggers-book-review-362348 (accessed March 6, 2021).