A post-9/11 novel examining how that traumatic event shapes the lives of the narrator and a college professor, as well as the lives of those she teaches.
Although the novel takes place in Boston rather than New York City, the shadow of the events of 9/11 looms over the urban landscape. Erika teaches an international group of health professionals and has them write research papers relevant to their personal and political interests, but she also broods on the meaning of the events of 9/11. Her students become aware that academic research and writing are too abstracted from real life, a point driven home by Honig as she switches the narrative to scenes in Nairobi, where dreadful exploitation and unimaginable violence are being visited upon children as young as 12. This theme of distancing oneself from the real world pervades the novel, particularly through characters such as Nussbaum, a bully who’s named chair of the department and who’s preoccupied with his own petty power, and Toby, who writes grants for sociological studies in Africa but who has never been there himself. In response to the social evil found in Kenya one character tries to help those who are being oppressed and is fired for violating rules meant to ensure “objectivity.” The most touching character is Ibrahim, a Sudanese doctor to a sheik. Ibrahim is kind, loving and curious, but he’s stricken with cancer, and his patience teaches Erika much about the process of dying. In an insult to his virtue, his brother-in-law is arrested on suspicion of—what else in this post-9/11 world?—terrorism. Honig constructs a world of goodness circumscribed by evil, of good deeds done in the context of overwhelming misery.
Though occasionally preachy, the novel is both heartfelt and moving.