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THE LAUGHTER by Sonora Jha Kirkus Star


by Sonora Jha

Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 2023
ISBN: 978-0-06-324025-4
Publisher: HarperVia

Jha’s new novel examines the political culture of a college in Seattle.

On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Oliver Harding, an aging White professor of literature, laughs at Trump supporters and feels assured of Clinton’s coming victory, like liberals all over the country. But when he begins to develop an infatuation with Ruhaba Khan, a younger Pakistani colleague, he starts to become embroiled in an apparently shady drama surrounding Ruhaba’s teenage nephew, Adil Alam, who's come to stay with her from his home in France. As Oliver grows closer to Ruhaba, campus politics begin to escalate, and these rumblings throw his position into question, his instincts beginning to belie his sense of himself as a liberal, accepting person. Told in a chronology that alternates between a present tense in the aftermath of some awful event (the details of which are as yet unclear) and flashbacks to the weeks leading up to that event, the narrative pulses with a sense of growing unease and inevitable tragedy that perfectly reflects its historical moment. This pacing is very careful, and suspense builds gradually. Oliver’s sheer lack of self-awareness makes for many a comic moment, particularly juxtaposed as it is with his academic grandiosity, although this precise pairing can make him a difficult narrator to spend time with—and indeed, as the novel progresses, he grows more despicable. Yet the overall result is a novel that is both enjoyable and thought-provoking. Jha impressively avoids the trap of preachiness and moralizing that stories of identity politics on campus tend to fall into; rather, hers is a subtle and nuanced look at the subject. The novel plants seeds that turn out to be red herrings, building layer upon layer of assumptions—about campus culture, identity politics, religion, East versus West, racism, and terrorism. These assumptions are subverted and inverted, reminding us that, despite what some campus iconoclasts or national political figures might want us to believe, these matters are not usually black and white.

A powerful and darkly funny campus novel with an unexpected narrative perspective.