Review: Godsend by John Wray
This is a recent release in the US and will be published in January 2019 in the UK. It has received rave reviews from two critics I respect and frequently agree with, Dwight Garner at the New York Times and James Wood at The New Yorker. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but it is his fifth novel and he’s won various writing awards. I was intrigued by the book because I’ve been doing research and writing on why young women are attracted to Islamic extremist organizations like ISIS. I co-authored and presented a conference paper with an undergraduate student and we’re trying to figure out what direction to take it for revision and then submission to a journal. It’s a difficult topic to research because what systematic data exist are usually proprietary, and the topic combines psychology, sociology, and political science. I thought a novel could shed some interesting light on individual motivations and help me think about the project in a different way. Sometimes fiction can illuminate in ways social science can’t, and this seemed like one of those times.
Godsend is a relatively short book in terms of word and page count. The print version is 240 pages. The story is inspired by John Walker Lindh, the young American from California who converted to Islam, went to fight with the Taliban, and was captured, tried, and sentenced to prison in the years after 9/11. Wray was commissioned by Esquire to write a story about Lindh and went to Afghanistan in 2016 or thereabouts to find people who knew him. (This background should have been a red flag for me. As someone who does qualitative research, interviewing people 15 years after the time you’re interested in is not likely to get you factually accurate information, especially about a notorious individual.) While Wray was there, he heard a rumor about a girl who had also joined the insurgents. He was never able to pin down concrete information about her, even whether she really existed, and she was variously described as American, Dutch, or English (he doesn’t say she was white and/or non-Muslim, but that’s implied by the comparison to Lindh). He abandoned the feature story and decided to write a book about a girl using some of Lindh’s backstory.
The novel opens in late 2000 or early 2001 and introduces us to Aden Sawyer, an 18-year-old who lives in Santa Rosa, California. Aden is preparing to leave home and fly to Pakistan to study Islam at a madrassa. She is leaving behind a life she is completely alienated from: her parents are separated, her mother is an alcoholic, and she has no friends. Her father, an Islamic Studies professor, mentions that he can get her a deferment, presumably for her college admission, but she is determined to go. Aden is accompanied by her friend-with-benefits, Dexter Yousufzai, whose family is from Pakistan via Dubai and who has found the madrassa through his connections.
You might be asking how a young woman can attend an all-male madrassa in rural northwest Pakistan, and you’d be right to do so. Aden has this all figured out: she has shaved her head, acquired native garb and will be binding her breasts with an Ace bandage. As a romance reader I felt right at home. Aden has also been studying Arabic since she found the local mosque and converted to Islam, but she doesn’t speak Urdu or Pashto. She’s also very recognizably Western, given her fair skin, cultural ignorance, basic Arabic, and non-exist vernacular skills.
The first third of the story involves Aden and Dexter’s arrival in Karachi, journey to Peshawar, and arrival and early days at the madrassa. Aden is able to fool everyone, perhaps because she’s already so foreign to them. She’s given her own sleeping quarters at the madrassa and is able to take care of her bodily and personal functions in private. At this point we have hints that she wants to do more than memorize the Quran, but she seems happy and fulfilled at the school. She takes on the Muslim name Suleyman (which was also part of Lindh’s Muslim name). Dexter is bored and skittish and seems most energized when his somewhat mysterious cousins show up. They may or may not be insurgents.
Then the son of the madrassa’s head teacher arrives and we move into the second act of the novel. Ziar Khan is handsome, cosmopolitan (he spent years in Yemen), and Someone Important outside the walls of the school. Alone among the people Aden has met, he speaks Arabic and good English, which is great because now Aden has someone besides Dexter she can communicate with easily. He’s mysterious, but in a more charismatic way than Dexter’s cousins. Eventually, through a series of events that didn’t entirely make sense to me, Aden winds up joining the insurgency in a unit that includes Ziar. During this time she hears about 9/11, experiences the US bombing of Afghanistan, and finds herself and her fellow soldiers at greater and greater risk. And her disguise may or may not be slipping.
Basically we have a coming-of-age story (the publisher’s term, not mine) set in an Islamic Extremist world in which a young American woman can become very much Not Like the Other Girls and develop amazing soldiering skills while gaining the respect and even affection of hardened fighting men and religious leaders. Obviously you have to buy this to make the whole thing work, and I tried to. The depiction of the Afghan/Pakistan border area is well done (although the seasons seemed to come and go), some of the writing is excellent, and a lot of the dialogue is fine, especially when we move beyond religious platitudes.
But this book has been praised for its depiction of religiosity, and here it really didn’t come through for me. We never get a good sense of why Islam for Aden, and why fighting with the Taliban (it’s also not clear it’s always the Taliban; sometimes her unit goes off with a Kashmir-focused insurgent organization). There are words on the page describing her conversion and religiosity, and the scenes in the madrassa come close, but given the glowing reviews, I expected more insight into how her mind had worked and the process that got her there. Lots of teenagers have unhappy school experiences and dysfunctional families. Most of them don’t convert to an unfamiliar religion, let alone go off to fight halfway around the world. The head mullah in the madrassa and most of the other characters are basically stock figures. Dexter, who should be as interesting as Aden given his key role, has even less of a motivating story and no interiority whatsoever. He only exists in terms of his relationship to Aden.
Ziar is more nuanced, especially in the last third of the novel when he and Aden spend a lot of time together. Unfortunately, at this point the plot takes a sharp turn and becomes a doomed love story. These two are in the thick of intense fighting, severely disadvantaged in terms of resources and tactics, and they choose this moment to profess their love for each other. I thought I had wandered into a genre romance or YA novel. It was weird, and it sat very oddly with the deeply religious Aden of the novel up to that point. She agonizes about what she’s doing, but then she just goes on and does it anyway. The heart wants what the heart wants, I guess? I found it cringe-inducing, and I’m a romance reader!
The final sequences are even worse. The princess saves herself, just like in any standard YA or genre novel, but good grief. I won’t spoil the ending in case anyone decides to read it, but it was even more unbelievable than the previous section (which I just realized channeled The English Patient, which makes that part even more risible).
This novel was such a disappointment. The reviews make it sound like a breakthrough story about religious devotion and the strength of deep spirituality. It’s not. You will learn a bunch of shuras, and you’ll get a decent sense of what a village madrassa is like. And some of the military sequences are really well done; apart from the weather not really being incorporated into the story, the training and fighting struck me as very effectively written. And Wray can definitely write. This just isn’t his milieu and it shows.
What a fascinating topic, both for your research and for this book. Sounds really intriguing.
It really is an intriguing topic. Girls and women who join the insurgencies are frequently portrayed as immature, brainwashed, etc., and that’s part of what motivated us. Why are they somehow considered to be more irrationally attracted than the men who go? And this book does a good job of avoiding that trap. It just doesn’t do more than that, and that was disappointing to me. But it’s worth reading, as long as you keep in mind that you’re getting a very partial and incomplete window into a complex issue.
How disappointing that the reviews misrepresent the contents so greatly. I wonder if it’s because the reviewers don’t know that much about the topic? It is interesting how sometimes some inaccuracies can read as well-researched or true to life to those who don’t know better.
I think conversion can be a difficult thing to portray because it can happen very gradually. I’m suspicious when I see it depicted as happening all at once, as a direct result of one experience, because I’ve never met or heard of anyone who converted that way in real life.
I think the reviewers don’t mean to misrepresent, they just have a different take on what a religious, observant person (especially a convert) behaves like, or at least they’re not as familiar with the range of behavior contained in the term “observant.” Garner is very upfront that he doesn’t usually find stories with overt religious material appealing, and my guess is that Wood isn’t that familiar with Islamic daily practice (and the variations therein). So yes, I agree that what looks authentic to them isn’t necessarily based on much experiential or learned knowledge.
I don’t have a problem with quick conversion in this context, because what’s being depicted is not always spiritual change per se, but a rapid transformation that is both spiritual and ideological. Quite a few people who join cults, or become attached to a religious group very rapidly are not necessarily that familiar with the doctrine, or only know a narrow part. And in this case Aden is going to Pakistan to become educated in Islamic faith and doctrine as well as to join a resistance. It’s unclear how much of each goal is motivating her.