Sunday, November 14, 2010
The Good Son by Michael Gruber
I didn't expect to like Gruber's novel as much as I did. It had the appearance of an airport thriller, like something out of the Robert Ludlum school of fiction. Nor was I all that impressed with a pedestrian first chapter mostly comprised of back-story. However, the subject, the politics, and the energy of the novel quickly won me over, as did the various characters. The plot, which takes place in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Langley, Virginia, is prescient enough to read like something that might be taking place at this very moment, and perhaps something like it is. Theo, a Pakistani with a background in jihad and explosives comes to the United States, learns English, studies American customs and becomes a soldier in his adopted country, trained to kill, and pass for a native in tribal regions overseas. Meanwhile, Sonia his mother (traveling in Pakistan despite a fatwa against her) is kidnapped. Theo attempts to get her out. Sonia, a Muslim as well as a Catholic, is an author, psychologist, traveler- and, oh yes, former circus performer. She and her colleagues are about to be executed, but, through Jungian analysis and her knoweldge of the Qur'an, she is able to manipulate her captors, interpreting their dreams, and subverting the system from within. Preposterous? Perhaps, but Gruber makes it work, mainly because of the research he puts into the book, and the way everyone's viewpoint is treated seriously. Moreover, Gruber's depiction of life in Pakistan and Afghanistan feels like it comes from a first-hand knowledge of that region of the world. I found the arguments regarding religion fascinating, though others might find they slow down the pace of the plot. Nevertheless, Sonia's moral ambiguities, combined with Theo's understanding of tribal culture and American greed, make for an unpredictable climax, one in which it's difficult to say who is right and who is wrong. As with the war itself, no one wins, while the only losers are the people themselves.