In this fourth installment of a fictional series based on a true story, a teenage Egyptian experiencing a crisis of faith undertakes a meditative pilgrimage.
In 2015, nearly two dozen Coptic Christians were taken hostage by the Islamic State group in Egypt and summarily executed. There was only one survivor, Mekhaeil Zacharias, a 16-year-old whose life was spared in order to become a living testament to the band’s unmerciful intent. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Mekhaeil’s life continued to be a tumultuous one—he traveled to India, was hunted by IS assassins, became an international celebrity, and finally landed in New York City. In this volume, he now experiences profound spiritual confusion about who he is—removed from his native land, he’s unsure if he’s still a Coptic Christian or any kind of Christian at all. Father Bishoy, a kind of mentor to Mekhaeil, encourages him to replicate the pilgrimage once taken by St. James, El Camino de Santiago, which begins in France and concludes in northwestern Spain. During his journey, Mekhaeil meets and converses with many travelers and receives a series of lessons about the history of various world faiths, a litany that begins to feel like a textbook course on comparative religion. At one point, he tells a journalist: “I have learned about the Muslims and the Jews, the Buddhists and the Hindus, the Methodists and other Christian denominations, but I’m just not sure I believe everything I have been taught by my parents and the Coptic priests.” Kelley (Hiding in America, 2018, etc.) has based his series on the IS beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya in 2015; there were no survivors. In this installment, the author thoughtfully details Mekhaeil’s philosophical odyssey and his prayerful shift from thinking about God to addressing his concerns to him. While the narration in these pages frequently references the book’s predecessors, it’s understandable on its own. The author writes in lucid and affecting prose and powerfully limns Mekhaeil’s “beaten soul,” the consequence of his theological doubts as well as his survivor’s guilt. But Kelley tries too hard—laboriously and earnestly—to impart a lesson, which makes the novel feel didactic. For example, preceding the story are two introductory notes in which Kelley feels compelled to explain the work’s meaning in advance.
A philosophically searching but overly moralistic tale.