Today’s review: The Book of Jonas
Author: Stephen Dau
Publisher: Plume (The Penguin Group)
Number of pages: 258
Genre: Fiction/Contemporary/Coming of age/War
Jonas is fifteen when his family is killed during an errant U.S. military operation in an unnamed Muslim country. With the help of an international relief organization, he is sent to America, where he struggles to assimilate-foster family, school, a first love. Eventually, he tells a court-mandated counselor and therapist about a U.S. soldier, Christopher Henderson, responsible for saving his life on the tragic night in question. Christopher’s mother, Rose, has dedicated her life to finding out what really happened to her son, who disappeared after the raid in which Jonas’ village was destroyed. When Jonas meets Rose, a shocking and painful secret gradually surfaces from the past, and builds to a shattering conclusion that haunts long after the final page. Told in spare, evocative prose, The Book of Jonas is about memory, about the terrible choices made during war, and about what happens when foreign disaster appears at our own doorstep. It is a rare and virtuosic novel from an exciting new writer to watch.
The Book of Jonas is the story of Middle-Eastern youth Jonas as he struggles to adjust to American life after being rescued from his ruined village that was destroyed after a U.S military operation went wrong. After it is discovered that Jonas suffers from lapses in his memory about what ensued at the time of the incident, he is sent to a therapist in an attempt to recover the memories he has lost. Aside from this, Jonas is sent to live with a host family, and attends high school with their children. Jonas, as it turns out, is a brilliant student, achieving the highest results in all of his classes with ease and minimal effort. He becomes fascinated with the workings of Christian religion, spending hours at a time researching everything he can about God and his Will. As is to be expected, Jonas is singled out by other students, and is targeted for the colour of his skin, his funny accent, and his quiet nature. When pushed over the edge however, Jonas is unafraid to fight back, and soon earns a reputation as someone to be admired and slightly intimidated by.
As his sessions with his therapist, Paul, ensue, Jonas is unsure as to whether he simply cannot recall anything that happened before he was sent to America, or whether something deep inside him is refusing to release his knowledge of what happened. Due to his continuing brilliance, Jonas receives a scholarship and attends the University of Pittsburgh, where he meets his first love, Shakri. Shakri urges him to delve into his past and make more of an effort to find out what happened to him, and Jonas discovers the existence of Christopher Henderson who, according to therapist Paul, was the soldier who saved Jonas’ life when his village was destroyed, but has now gone missing. In an attempt to find out more about his past and heal his emotional wounds, Jonas meets with Rose, Christopher’s mother, and it is this event that releases his memory. He starts to open up about what happened after his village was destroyed.
His new knowledge however, takes it’s toll, and Jonas soon finds himself resorting to comfort in alcohol, and ends up on the wrong side of the law. With the help of his therapist Paul and the information that Rose Henderson has shared with him, Jonas is able to piece together his life, his identity, and what really happened to him and Christopher Henderson the night his village was destroyed.
I enjoyed this book and I’m glad that this was the book that I randomly pulled of the shelf of my local library. I found it very interesting to read about not only war, but its after-effects, particularly from the point of view of a teenager. It was sad to witness how someone as brilliant and gifted as Jonas could be pulled down into the depths of his trauma, and to resort to drinking away his problems, but I suppose it’s understandable why someone would do that if they had lived through what Jonas had.
I did find Dau’s storytelling a little disconcerting at first. It would alternate between present-day Jonas, Jonas when he lived in the Middle East (this was before he changed his name and was known as Younis), the events of Jonas’ therapy sessions, Rose Henderson’s point of view, and Christopher Henderson’s journal entries. The amount of jumping around made the story hard to follow at some points and I became surprised by the amount of time that had passed, but it got easier the further I read.
I also felt that some of the supporting characters were a little underdeveloped, and could have contributed to the story a little better, like Jonas’ friend Hakma, and even Shakri, who we really don’t find out all that much about. The story did tend to drag at some points as well for example, there is a whole chapter (granted, it’s only two and a half pages) dedicated to Jonas filling out forms. It was things like this that I felt were rather unnecessary.
Aside from these little things, I ultimately found the story very enjoyable. Jonas’ very thoughtful, detailed observations were fascinating to read, and the contrast between his life in the Middle East and America made for interesting reading. The beginning of the story brings with it a lot of confusion about where it is going and what it is about, but by the mid-way through to end of the book, everything makes sense, and the reader finally discovers what happened to Jonas on that fateful night, although what you find out is not exactly pleasant.
I would definitely recommend this book for others. It sheds new light on the horrors of war and how it pushes humans outside of their boundaries to do extraordinary and unthinkable things.