Book review: Godsend, by John Wray

John Wray PIC: Gert Eggenberger / AFP / Getty
John Wray PIC: Gert Eggenberger / AFP / Getty
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John Wray went to Afghanistan to research an article for Esquire about a young man, John Walker Lindh, who converted to Islam, became known as “the American Taliban,” and was taken prisoner by US Forces after the American invasion. While there he heard rumours about an English-speaking, probably American girl who had also fought with the Taliban, disguised in some versions of the story as a boy. She may or may not have existed, but Godsend is her story as imagined by Wray.

The novel begins in California, early in the year 2001, with a spiky conversation between 18-year-old Aden Grace Sawyer and her alcoholic mother. It’s a goodbye and good riddance conversation: Aden’s visa has arrived. We don’t know for which country. A conversation with her estranged father, a Professor of Islamic Studies, reveals that she is heading for North-West Pakistan to study in a madrasa. Her friend and companion, Decker, is an American boy of Pashtun origins, with cousins who have recommended this madrasa. Aden (or Sawyer) as he addresses her is, in the manner of converts, more committed to both the religion and their journey than Decker. Furthermore, she is disguising herself as a boy – hair cropped and breasts bound. In the madrasa she will be given the name of Suleyman.

Wray writes with an elegant economy, and is good on both description (not overdone) and dialogue. He makes what might seem distant to American and European readers feel immediate. His treatment of Islam is sympathetic; he shows that side of the faith which makes the description of it as “a religion of peace” convincing. The elderly Mullah who is the master of the Madrasa is gentle, sympathetic, a holy man. The faith is different but he bears a resemblance to Kim’s Lama.

Afghanistan, however, is just over the border. The Mullah’s son, Ziar Khan, is a man of war, a soldier for Islam. Impressed by Aden/Suleyman, though less impressed by Decker, now known as Ali, he takes them with him into Afghanistan to join the Taliban. At this point the narrative changes key, becomes, abrupt, congested, alarming. Is it possible for Aden to remain the innocent believer she was, and for Decker to commit himself to a course he never wanted to follow, one which frightens him? In the mountains they learn of 9/11. Nothing to do with us, is the first response. But suddenly, as an American boy, she is suspect:

“The captain stood… observing her reaction, making no attempt to camouflage his hatred. She knew what he was looking for and knew also that if he found it she would not have long to live. She remembered what Ziar had said to her the day they crossed the border: you must take pains to be one thing to them only. She spat ostentatiously into the grass. “Were many sinners killed?” This is good and chilling. Perhaps only the adverb – ostentatiously – is unnecessary.

“Chilling” is indeed the right word for the narrative as it moves inexorably to a cruel and alarming climax. Wray’s understanding of the beauties and cruelties of religious faith is deeply impressive. For most westerners today – and Wray is a citizen of Austria as well as of the United States – the degree of commitment to what are perceived as the utmost, and inescapable, demands of Faith is hard to understand. Indeed, we have to go back centuries to do so. For us Scots, that means back to the 17th century and the Covenanters. When one reads this novel, which is a remarkable feat of sympathetic imagination on the part of the author, one thinks back to The Tale of Old Mortality and Balfour’s justification of the assassination of Archbishop Sharp, or to the massacre which followed the Battle of Philiphaugh and the minister of the Kirk who, regarding it, said “The Lord’s wark goes merrily on.” The work Aden-as-Suleyman does is anything but merry.

This is a very fine novel indeed. A lesser writer would have made it at least twice as long. Anybody who seeks to understand the world as it is today will find enlightenment here.

Godsend, by John Wray, Canongate, 228pp, £14.99