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Godsend by John Wray
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Godsend (edition 2018)

by John Wray (Author)

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321503,850 (3.25)2
Member:datrappert
Title:Godsend
Authors:John Wray (Author)
Info:Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2018), 240 pages
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Godsend by John Wray

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“The beauty of austerity. The beauty of no quarter. She felt its pull and saw no earthly end to it.”

“She’d hoped for grace and dignity and unity of purpose.”


John Wray’s compelling novel focuses on the physical and spiritual journey of an 18-year-old American girl, Aden Grace Sawyer. Initially, Aden travels from San Francisco to a madrasa in Peshawar, on the northwest frontier of Pakistan. She then moves on to two jihadi training camps—finding herself ever closer to the front where the Taliban fight the warlords of the northern Afghanistan. Weary of caring for her alcoholic mother and entirely disillusioned with her unfaithful, “apostate”, university professor father, an Islamic studies scholar, Aden has turned to Islam, apparently in a desire for clarity and purity. An outcast at school who is snickered at by her peers, Aden has attended a mosque for a little over a year and has been radicalized. Wearing a shalwar kameez and a boyish haircut (and swallowing a daily dose of menstrual-cycle-altering hormones), she has her erstwhile boyfriend, Decker, traveling with her. Decker, who is of Pashtun heritage and fluent in the languages of the region, has a number of family connections overseas. However, he does not have Aden’s drive for meaning, purpose, and certainty. He’s along for the ride as protector and adventurer, with hopes that sexual benefits might be the reward for loyalty.

Aden’s father believes she is taking a gap year to find herself. A detached figure, he avoids discussing the psychological conflicts that may be fuelling his daughter’s journey and the ideology that guides her, even when she refers to her trip as a “jihad. It’s unclear what her mother thinks, lost as she generally is in an alcoholic fog. She has turned the family photos to face the wall, indicating that she regards Aden’s departure as a kind of death.

Wray makes some interesting authorial choices. A significant portion of his novel consists of dialogue, but he eschews the usual punctuation marks and speaker tags, employing introductory dashes instead to mark the switch from one to another speaker. I’m not sure why he’s done this, though it may be that the dash suggests a sort of urgency. In any case, substituting this unconventional punctuation for the more common marks does not interfere with meaning. Wray’s writing is clean and limber, often hushed and beautiful in its simplicity. He effectively tells as often as he shows, but that telling is nuanced.

As might be expected, much of the tension in this novel arises from Aden’s disguise. I don’t believe any young American woman entering Afghanistan would be as successful at male impersonation and for such a duration of time as Aden is. If readers are unwilling to suspend disbelief around this and are unprepared for a certain vagueness around how Aden became so fluent in Arabic, how she converted and became radicalized, the novel might be problematic for them. I agreed to Wray’s terms, accepting that what he was really interested in was exploring a female jihadi’s experience, and the novel worked for me. In some ways, Aden’s story made me recall Joan of Arc’s.

Additional tension is created when Decker and Aden’s relationship threatens to break down. Is it possible that he will attempt to return to America without her? Will he reveal her true identity to those running the training camp? Might a young boy recruit who has seen Aden squatting and noted her missing parts accept her explanation, or could he mention to someone that she is not like them?

Aden’s devotion to Ziar Khan, a recruiter who is a decade older than she, also propels the plot. There is a simmering passion here, and many of the men suspect that Aden, or “Suleyman” (as she now calls herself), is his “dancing boy”. Does Ziar suspect that this devout warrior for God, in Afghanistan to protect a Muslim nation, is actually a girl? What will happen if and when he does?

For the better part of the novel, there is some uncertainty about when it is set. Wray eventually reveals this.

To this point, I’ve deliberately avoided looking at critical reviews and author interviews. However, I’m certainly curious to know more about how Wray came to write this unusual and fascinating novel and how he conducted his research. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Jan 19, 2019 |
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