Robin Yassin-Kassab


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This review was published at The Guardian.

godsendAden Grace Sawyer, eighteen years old, is “a serious girl, an asker of questions.” Alienated from her comfortable Californian suburban surroundings by family breakdown – her father has left home following an affair, and her mother has slipped into alcoholism – she turns to Islam for consolation.

Her choice appears guided in equal measure by a genuinely spiritual urge for submission to the transcendent, and a more prosaically youthful defiance. Still in the Bay Area, she dons Afghan-style shalwar kameez, and crops her hair rather than wear a hijab. Next she plans to migrate to a godly country. Because Decker, her blustering boyfriend and travelling companion, has Afghan roots and cousins in Karachi, they head for Pakistan.

Aden’s father – significantly, a professor of Islamic studies at Berkeley – has warned her of the limited “possibilities for a woman in that part of the world”. Aden has too much attitude to accept any sort of limitation and so reinvents herself, improbably but credibly, as a boy. With bandaged breasts, and “hidden by her clear and perfect strangeness”, she is restyled as Suleyman, Quranic student and potential holy warrior. Soon she’s attending an all-male madrasa in the tribal areas of the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands. “So far away,” she whispers triumphantly. Too far for unlucky Decker, who only planned an adventure holiday. To sustain her role, Aden refuses to continue sleeping with him.

The War on Terror theme can quickly reduce even great writers to cliche and worse. (John Updike’s lamentable “Terrorist” may be the worst of the genre.) “Godsend”, however – John Wray’s fifth novel – is entirely convincing, in part, no doubt, because Wray has done his research.

As a journalist Wray travelled to Afghanistan in 2001 to study the case of ‘American Taliban’ John Walker Lindh. While there he heard a rumour concerning a young Western woman fighting in man’s disguise. The plot also makes use of an Afghan antecedent – the bacha posh tradition, whereby a daughter in a home with no sons may take on the role of a boy.

Beyond its solid grounding in Afghan and Islamic knowledge, this unlikely tale is rendered plausible by Wray’s consummate writerly skills. The various Muslim characters – cynics and fanatics, manipulative adults and lost children – each clearly distinct from the other, are treated seriously and empathetically. “Godsend” is certainly not another tired ‘radicalisation’ narrative. Aden brings her naivety and arrogance with her, lamenting “how far from the true faith the country had fallen”, and most of the madrasa officials aim to challenge it. “There is no humility in the righteous self-love of the mujahid,” says one. “There is no modesty in it, no denial of desire, no restraint.”

Very unusually, the novel engages deeply with the purist attractions of a religious life. There is as much delight as horror in the world Aden leaps into, in “the beauty of austerity”, the morning prayer which “calls the whole world into being”, and the spiritual-poetic rhythms of Quranic recitation: “In the very best moments her own sight seemed to dim and she could feel the verses buzzing as they passed between her teeth, and that was all she wanted or could ever want.” The reader lives enough within Aden’s perspective to believe in the end her claim that “the love she harboured for the world was free of sin.”

Aden’s relationship with her father, whom she wishes to “erase”, though carefully understated, is central to the psycho-drama. The Teacher, as she scornfully calls him, studies Islam but laughs at the Muslims. The charismatic Ziar, who persuades her to cross the border to fight, is by contrast deadly serious, and the love she develops for him – beautifully complexified by her gender deception – veers between romantic and filial. Once in the war zone, she soon commits irreversible acts in bad as well as good faith. Thereafter “there was no way out for her but straight ahead”. A furious narrative momentum carries the story to its devastating conclusion.

Along the way Wray includes a masterful 9/11 scene. “Some sort of conflagration” in Manhattan is reported on a field radio, though its significance for Afghanistan is not immediately recognised. “It wasn’t Pashtuns that did it,” mutter the Pashtun fighters. Aden too would like to escape the consequences. She has migrated, in her dangerous innocence, not to strike the West but to aid the Taliban, “the devout … a learned coalition”, against their local opponents, “the animals of the north”. “This war has nothing to do with America,” she announces, but reads the terror attacks, nevertheless, egotistically, as an assault on her attempt to disappear: “She saw herself in faded video, her image degrading, her outline blurred with violence. In spite of all her subterfuge America had found her.”

The book’s precise descriptions of the external world – squalid cities studded with ornate mosques, soaring mountains and icy rivers, mud-and-wattle villages inhabited by ambiguously sullen villagers – are as rich as its interiority is profound.

Rawly unsentimental but illumined throughout by a subtle compassion, “Godsend” is a novel of enormous emotional intelligence which makes for compelling and consistently unpredictable reading.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 22, 2019 at 6:45 pm

Posted in book review

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