Book review: Godsend by John Wray
Disclaimer: This title was very kindly sent to me, pre-release, by Canongate.
Godsend – John Wray’s fifth novel – commentates on a timely and sensitive topic. Focussing on Aden Grace Sawyer as she leaves her Californian home, complete with alcoholic mother and distant father, from which she has become disillusioned. Aden has converted to Islam. Longing to find a different way of life, one more in line with her newly discovered faith, and to distance herself her unhappy home life, Aden becomes Suleyman, a boy seeking to further his understanding of Islam and the Holy Book by receiving an education at a male-only madrasa in Pakistan.
Aden’s faith is intense, and it makes her naïve; at least initially. Her Dad tries to warn her but, in a way that I am sure many can relate, she scoffs at his, somewhat passive, attempts to dissuade her. Rather than listening to his concerns, she forges ahead, travelling with her friend-with-benefits, Decker. It is in this friendship – or, arguably, dependency – that Wray illustrates the conflicts between real members of Islam and those who apply the label to themselves but are better described as Terrorists. It is also within their interactions, both between themselves, others, and their surroundings that we see both their shortcomings and their strengths.
For many, this is a compelling, emotional, and absorbing novel. I desperately hoped I would find myself experiencing the same. Divided into three sections, and devoid of chapters, this 240 page read started strong. However, this promising start developed into a prolonged, somewhat frustrating process. Feelings towards and about a particular writing style are subjective. Indeed, many enjoyed Wray’s style finding it moving and gripping. He employed a soft, quiet, kind of voice – almost of awe and reverence. There were times when this was a well-placed; the Madras, the times of prayer, even during Aden’s excitement as she travelled into the unknown – implying the undercurrents of realised uncertainty. Equally, there needed to be times when the volume was turned up. I felt as though I missed much of the action. Realising, after the fact, that these events had happened – without exception – reduced their gravitas.
Much like the progression of the novel, the characters also began to merge into one another. It should be noted that I am unfamiliar with both Pakistan and Pakistani names, and I believe that this had an impact on my ability to follow who was who. However, while I acknowledge the effect my ignorance had on my enjoyment and take-away, I found myself wanting. There was character development, it would be unfair to claim otherwise, but much of this was wrapped up in other events and other people; and as I found that many of these passed me by, so did most of the character growth. What I wanted to happen was a re-examination, or rather an examination, of motive as our guides were drawn into situations and decisions they had never considered. What attracted Aden to Islam? Why did she feel so very disillusioned with California? To what extent were her choices her own? There were so many questions which, personally, if they had been answered would have made this a far more engaging read.
Reading, like reviewing, is a subjective activity. This book is not going to be hitting any of my favourites lists but it is, and will be, a five-star read for many. If I was a reader comfortable with a more literary writing style: a quieter voice using implication and atmosphere more than a direct tell or, if I had more of a foundation knowledge of Pakistan and Islam, I am sure I’d have had a more positive experience.
Godsend is being published by Canongate and will be released on 24th January 2019.
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