A young woman heads to the Middle East for spiritual guidance but instead encounters the violent side of jihadism.
Wray’s fifth novel (The Lost Time Accidents, 2016, etc.) keeps its narrative lens firmly trained on Aden Grace Sawyer, a young woman who leaves her Northern California home with her boyfriend, Decker, to enter a men-only madrasa in Peshawar, Pakistan, trusting that her boyish frame and crew cut are a sufficient disguise. Her commitment to Islam is intense, though the source of her conversion is vague. Her father is a scholar of the religion, but he strenuously disapproves of her decision. “You have disappointments in store, I’m afraid,” he intones. Dad is right, though her disillusionment happens slowly, naturally—and, to Wray’s credit, without hackneyed caricatures of violent terrorists or trite gender-swap plot twists. There are linguistic and cultural barriers that are difficult to cross (her teachers don’t quite get that her father is a scholar of Islam but not an adherent), Decker is increasingly absent, and she suspects he’s increasingly involved in fighting on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. If so much deception is going on, Aden (and Wray) wonders, what room is there for spiritual seeking? In the novel’s second half, Aden increasingly becomes witness to and participant in violence, though Wray’s tone is so restrained and muted the effect of such events feels more like moral disappointments than emotional crises. (Letters home from Aden, written in a snappish tone, have a little more blood in them.) Indeed, it’s a stylistic counterpoint to Wray’s previous novel, the ungainly, loose-limbed The Lost Time Accidents. But as Aden’s crisis comes to a head, some recklessness would be welcome.
Wray is paying appropriate respect to the matters of gender and religion he’s taken on. But the narrative is also subsumed by its own gravitas.