In ‘Godsend,’ an Idealistic Young Woman Gets Tangled Up in Trouble in Afghanistan
Posted October 8, 2018 5:30 p.m. EDT
Thin and lost and wounded and chained, his face blackened as if a bomb had gone off in his hands, Wile E. Coyote-style, John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” captured as an enemy combatant during the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, was a figure of pity and mockery.
He was a plaything of fate, the nonpareil man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Former President George H.W. Bush called him “some misguided Marin County hot-tubber.” Bush later apologized, not to Lindh but to Marin County.
Lindh had gone to Yemen to study Arabic, and fell in with Taliban forces fighting what they saw as godless Northern Alliance fighters. He never intended to oppose the U.S., his lawyer said — after Sept. 11, he’d wanted to leave the front lines, but there was no way out and no way home.
John Wray’s serious, sober and frequently mesmerizing new novel, “Godsend,” is based loosely on Lindh’s story and is set essentially over the same time period, pre- and post-Sept. 11. Its heroine is an 18-year-old girl named Aden Sawyer who lives in Santa Rosa, California, with her mother, who is an alcoholic. Her father, who had been sexually unfaithful and moved out, is a secular scholar of Islam.
Aden despises him. “Godsend” includes, at interludes, letters from Aden to her father, mocking his Volvo and his cheating. He’s a “bourgeois ineffectual,” to borrow a phrase from a Sigrid Nunez novel. “You probably never believed one single thing in your whole life,” Aden writes. To further drive in the nail, she tells him she first discovered radical Islamist websites and chat rooms while using his laptop.
Wray captures the initial attractions, for Aden, of Islam. She feels empty and adrift in California; Islam fills her up. The following passage is worth quoting at length, for it speaks not only to her attraction to the religion but to the consistent excellence of Wray’s spare yet supple prose:
“She gazed up at the scroll above the desk, letting her sight go dim and out of focus, watching the letters writhe and curl together. Those fluid voluptuous letters. No language on earth was more beautiful to look at, more beautiful to speak. She knew it and her father knew it. The difference was he saw the beauty only. She herself saw the grief and forbearance and hope behind the brushwork, the suffering brought to bear on every calligraph. But beauty was its first attribute and the most dangerous by far. The beauty of austerity. The beauty of no quarter.”
What happens next in “Godsend” is part adventure and part horror story. With financial help from her local mosque, Aden flies to Pakistan with a friend. She’s already shaved her head. Now she wraps her breasts tightly in an Ace bandage. If the Muslim world is no place for an adventurous woman, she will be a man.
This story has parallels to Lindh’s biography and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” about a rabbi’s daughter in 19th-century Poland with “the soul of a man and the body of a woman.” She so wanted to study at yeshiva that she disguised herself as a boy. (Singer disliked the Barbra Streisand film version.)
For Aden, a series of induction regimens follow. She studies in a small rural madrassa and takes a new name, Suleyman, which is similar to one that Lindh adopted. She begins military training and eventually makes her way to the front lines of battle in Afghanistan. The men she is with, at each step in her pilgrim’s progress, grow harder and more cruel. At every moment, she is in desperate fear of being found out.
These militants are deeply suspicious of Aden. At the same time, she’s an exotic curio of jihad. Children gather around her to learn about the U.S. (“You drink milk in America? Milk with chocolate powder?”) Men notice an oddly luminous quality about her. One compares her to “the peacock in the rich man’s garden.”
“Godsend” contains some very adept writing about theology and religious feeling. The ways that sexual and religious elation can combine, and combust, are not discounted in this novel. Aden becomes close to one man in particular. He may have known her secret all along.
This is probably the place to say that “Godsend” mostly cuts against the grain of my own taste. I lack the spiritual gene, and I can grow resentful of novels that lead me into a cave of superstition and hushed ignorance and then seal the entrance. It can all grow too humid; I want motorized windshield wipers for my eyeglasses.
Wray manages to nearly always hold a skeptical reader rapt. This is a significant literary performance. The author has clearly mastered a great deal of learning about Islam and warfare and the nature of life in Afghanistan, and he carefully husbands these resources. There are no blood clots of showily displayed research to block this novel’s arteries.
This is Wray’s fifth novel. Each of his previous books is worth attending to — especially, in my estimation, “Lowboy” (2009), about a young boy who goes missing in the tunnels below Manhattan. That novel has some parallels with this one.
Aden is a sympathetic character. She’s also a bit of a blank. We don’t learn much about her life back in Santa Rosa, except that she was unhappy. Lindh was a rap fan. Wray gives that quality to Aden’s friend, the one who travels over with her. He buys a copy of Vibe magazine in the Dubai airport.
This blankness was surely intentional on Wray’s part. It universalizes, in some ways, Aden’s inchoate longing for meaning. Yet it also made me consider Donald Barthelme’s question, in his short story “A Shower of Gold”: “How can you be alienated without first having been connected?”
“Godsend” builds to a shattering, balefully vivid ending. Aden survives to walk through a minefield — or is it a graveyard?
By John Wray
228 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.