John Wray travelled to Afghanistan to research a non-fiction novel about John Walker Lindh, an American who joined the Taliban and was captured by US troops months before 9/11. While in Afghanistan, Wray heard more and more about a “girl” who, like Lindh, left America to join the Taliban. Wray’s biography of Lindh turned into a novel about this “girl”, who he calls Aden Sawyer, a Californian Muslim revert, who on arrival in a Madrasa in Pakistan, takes on a new name, Suleyman Al-Na’ama.
Aden’s name isn’t the only thing that changes. When she arrives, she starts to wrap her breasts in a bandage under her shalwar kameez, deepens her voice and keeps her hair short. She passes as a boy throughout the novel much to the annoyance of her companion, Decker, who just wants sex. Decker, a Muslim American, travels with her for fun, excitement, adventure. Aden’s reasons for leaving her parents in California are more deep-rooted and harder to understand.
Wray is at his best when he writes the space between characters, between Aden and Decker, her teacher, Hayat, her commander, Ziar, and her father, who is a secular Islamic scholar. You’ll notice that every relationship she has is with a man, we see next to nothing about her mother. While this makes sense as training camps are likely male-dominated areas, it can get a little tiring to see Aden passed from man after man as the plot winds on.
At first, I was a little wary of Godsend, unsure how an American could convincingly write about the Middle East. I needn’t have been worried. Perhaps because Wray started this novel as non-fiction, Godsend is clearly well-researched – though Wray doesn’t fall into the trap of bombarding readers with facts.
This is a novel about border crossing, a journey from America to Afghanistan, via Pakistan; a crossing between genders as Aden passes for a man and a crossing from righteousness to violence, from right to wrong, a border which, Wray shows, once crossed is easy to cross again.
To me, American fiction about the ‘War on Terror’ almost always falls flat. The white protagonist travelling East often sticks out as problematic, the male author embodying the female character often falls short of convincing. Wray, however, shows that there is worth in traversing these borders, that as long as a writer has researched well and has empathy for their subject, they can write about whatever they want.
The novel is told in a relatively straightforward way, it’s a chronological journey, a coming-of-age story. Aden’s conversion can be seen on a surface level as teenage rebellion, but it also shows a person’s deep desire for meaning and purpose. She is a relatable character in extraordinary circumstances.
Godsend works best at the big picture level. Sentence for sentence, it’s nothing to shout about and, at times, the dialogue reads as a little stilted. It’s an ambitious book and for the most part Wray delivers on what he sets out to achieve. You can tell why Wray dropped his other book to write this one, the story of an American teenager disguising herself as a boy to join the Taliban is full of potential. I couldn’t help but wonder though, as I finished it, whether it would have been better as a biography of the mysterious “girl” than as a novel imagining her.