“I lack the spiritual gene,” the New York Times’ Dwight Garner says in reviewing John Wray’s new book, Godsend: A Novel. “I can grow resentful of novels that lead me into a cave of superstition and wished ignorance and then seal the entrance.” Not that he didn’t like the novel. Garner, (perhaps the leading book reviewer of our day), calls it “a significant literary performance.” But he’s not alone in wondering at themes of spiritual questing in modern literature.
Our reviewing class seems to be losing its capacity for God.
Hannah Pittard confesses at the beginning of a review of Samantha Harvey’s new historical mystery, The Western Wind, that the novel “is concerned…with man’s relationship to God,” and, as an atheist, Pittard feels unequipped to “speak to Harvey’s religious or political leanings.” The review settles for celebrating Harvey’s obvious writing gifts.
Earlier this year, Garner also failed to fully grasp the theme of religious desire running through Jamie Quatro’s excellent Fire Sermon, seeing the protagonist’s spiritual hunger as merely being “starved for religious talk” and her meditations on sexual and religious desire as exercises that “set off the pretentiousness alarm that rests, like a smoke detector, at the top of one’s mind.”
With all due respect to the great Garner, to get at what’s going on in these books the reader needs to abandon the cingulate gyrus, “the top of one’s mind,” and get to the brain stem. Maybe the gut. That’s where you can really feel the impulse to faith.
Having said all that, you could read the remarkable Godsend as a story of the failure of faith. It’s right there in the title: Is Aden Sawyer, the California-born jihadi at the center of this story, the ‘godsend’ that her new mentors call her? Or rather is her ultimate disillusionment a sign of God’s end—the last of a string of failed guides?
What John Wray captures well, and plays with so well, in this taut coming-of-age novel are the themes of adolescent vulnerability and idealism, courage, and the tragic way in which conflicts perpetuate themselves long after their origins are forgotten. In this case, it is Pakistan and Afghanistan circa 2001 that provide the backdrop for Aden’s journey into radical Islam.
Before leaving the U.S., Aden is scandalized and suffocated by her wealthy, troubled parents, particularly her father who teaches Islamic studies with a scholar’s sterility. Her way out is through Islam, to which she commits herself fully. Ultimately she jumps on a plane to Karachi with her friend, Dexter, who has some family connections there.
Disregarding the danger, she wraps her chest with a bandage and, Yentl-like, passes for a boy to enter a remote madrasa to study the Quran. The war across the Afghan border seeps into the school, divides Aden and Dexter, and ultimately leads her, quite willingly, into the ranks of mujahideen. But there’s something different about Aden, or Suleyman, as she’s called among the fighters.
Despite her willingness to do brutal acts in support of the cause, Suleyman is suspected of being effeminate, perhaps a “Kandahar boy,” with all the salaciousness that implies. She is at constant risk of being exposed. A relationship with Ziar, a charismatic warlord, offers her some space for honesty and protection, but the walls continue to close in, culminating in all sorts of revelations during an American bombing run on an Afghan town as the U.S. response to 9/11 begins.
Wray has forged this story from reporting he did on John Walker Lindh, a figure you may have forgotten even if you followed coverage during the early days of the Afghan War. Like Aden, Lindh was an American convert who found his way to the battlefields of Afghanistan. If you remember him at all, perhaps what lingers in your mind are the post-capture photos of a dazed, bearded young man apparently resigned to his fate. Lindh experienced the full range of horrors to arrive in those pictures.
Aden experiences horrors, too. But the biggest journey she takes in Godsend is an inner one. Wray respects her gritty resilience, her vision of where she wants to go, and her willingness to sacrifice everything to get there. He also recognizes the way her faith motivates her and the characters around her. The Islamic leaders she meets are as varied and morally complex as people the world over are.
But ultimately neither Aden nor Wray can find the God that they seek. There are beautiful descriptions of snow and sun on far-flung mountains, the quiet rhythms of ancient communities, and the wild swings of adolescent relationships. But is God in the mix?
Dwight Garner may be off the hook for not getting the spiritual fervor here. For all of its importance to the plot, Wray seems not to be too interested in the religious quest. But enjoying this incredibly well-written story of an American abroad in the midst of one of the world’s most difficult conflicts, you will sense that God is not far from the page.
As God is not far from any story of what it means to be alive.