A sensitive if uncompelling exploration of cultural alienation: an abandoned son searches for understanding and redemption after his snake-handling father is fatally bitten.
The member of a notorious Appalachian sect who handles venomous snakes and ingests poison during religious services to prove his faith should be an intriguing subject—especially if, like Little Sam Jenkins, the figure also seduces young women, fathers numerous children, and cynically uses his preaching gifts to win fame and sexual favors. Even so, the Iranian-born Nahai (Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, 1999, etc.) adds a second story, this one with Middle Eastern origins. Sunday’s Silence opens when journalist Adam Watkins, stationed in Beirut, learns that Little Sam Adams has been killed by a snake handed to him during a service by a woman named Blue. Little Sam had married Watkins’s grandmother, a coal miner’s widow, then later had had an affair with Clare, her teenaged and sexually precocious daughter, who gave birth to Adam, tried to raise him, finally left him in a local orphanage. Now back in Knoxville, Adam tries to discover more about both Little Sam and the beautiful Blue Kerdi, the wife of an elderly professor. He soon meets her, and the two begin an affair, as Blue tells him her life story. The daughter of Kurds, one Muslim and one Jewish, she was raised as a nomad and married young in Iran to a professor, a nonpracticing Jew. In Knoxville, she joined Sam’s sect because the members made her feel welcome. As Adam learns about his family’s hard life and recalls his own years in the orphanage, he also hears why Blue killed Little Sam. And when the professor is found dead, with Blue is suspected of poisoning him, Adam realizes he must stay and fight.
Well intentioned, though the tale—partly of Appalachia, partly of Middle East—loses more strength than it gains through being double-stranded.