In Dau’s debut fiction, Younis, a perceptive, observant boy in a nameless Central Asian land, is caught up in the war on terror. His village has been destroyed, his family killed, and now he must remake himself as Jonas Iskander, refugee.
A charity sends Jonas to live with the Martins, an evangelical family in Pennsylvania. There he attends high school, an outcast, haunting the library to seal himself “inside a bastion of knowledge.” There he is also bullied, until he finally responds to an ugly attack by beating the bully senseless. The school mandates counseling, and the psychologist pressures Jonas to explore the trauma that destroyed family and home. Emotionally trapped between past and future, Jonas only remembers “half dreams that flicker.” Later admitted to the city’s university, Jonas meets a beautiful pre-med student from India and befriends other refugee students. He also begins to drink to the point of blackout. As the psychologist pushes Jonas to uncover suppressed truths about an American soldier who saved his life, the young refugee’s fractured recollections lead the counselor to connect Jonas' story with that of Rose Henderson, whose son, Christopher, went missing while in combat in Jonas’ home country. To Rose, trapped in a limbo of loss, Jonas reluctantly tells his story—of the attack on his village and of his mountain cave sanctuary where he was found by the soldier, “adding and subtracting, substituting what should have been said for what he fails to remember accurately.” While leaving one minor narrative thread dangling, Dau sketches Jonas brilliantly, empathetically, writing with spare, clear language in the third person, a point of view encompassing the distance necessary for emotional clarity. Rich with symbolism, marvelously descriptive in language—“the expression of a young boy playing poker with grown men”—Dau’s novel offers deeply resonating truths about war and culture, about family and loss that only art can reveal.A literary tour de force.