Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akhtar

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Title: “American Dervish”

Written by: Ayad Akhtar

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication Date: 2012

ISBN: 978-0-316-18331-4

I’ve been flirting with the idea of purchasing this book for two years now. Seeing it on sale, I finally made the commitment and I don’t regret doing so. Akhtar’s “American Dervish,” told by the narrator, Hayat Shah, begins as Hayat finds peace and freedom in religious defiance. He, a young Muslim man, meets a young Jewish woman in whom he has a romantic interest. He opens up to her about his past, his struggle with Islam, his family, religious tolerance, and sexual awakening. Hayat, introduced to the Quran by his mother’s friend Mina, find meaning and comfort in the book’s teachings. He becomes a driven and devout Muslim and by age twelve, he has memorized one third of the verses. As his devotion deepens, Hayat becomes lost in the teachings of Islam. He lacks guidance and his interpretation of the Quran becomes distorted by the extremism of certain figures in the community, as well as the lack of studied faith within his family. Hayat’s misinterpretations, and perhaps the lack of connection he feels with his family, result in act of defiance as he lashes out in anger. Hayat experiences an awakening when his beloved Mina becomes trapped in a violent and potentially deadly marriage. It is her suffering that brings about his realization of his wrongdoings. 

I did not like the character of young Hayat, although he is struggling with many difficulties in his life: an alcoholic and adulterous father, a neglected and angry mother. Hayat has no one he can turn to until Mina arrives in their household. As a child, I found Hayat to be a bit of a brat. As he becomes more and more devoted to his father, he becomes less and less relatable as character. His devotion serves to cut him off from the reader. His comments become pointed and judgemental and he often doesn’t know why he acts with such anger. He becomes filled with hatred towards those in the Jewish community, but cannot back up his hatred. He pulls information and belief from many sources in his community, but these beliefs are inconsistent. Hayat is confused, although he does not know it at the time. 

I did enjoy Akhtar’s writing. His style is easy to read and is very clear. His story flows well and the story arc is well-defined. I did find the end to be a little rushed as the story is thorough until Hayat turns twelve, then the plot skips and jumps until we return to the “present” Hayat. I would have liked to see less time spent on the beginning of the story and the last 2 or 3 chapters extended a bit more. 

I have little more to say about this story. It was an easy read that addressed many difficult topics that have strong roots in truth. Akhtar’s voice is honest and compelling. “American Dervish” is definitely not a favourite of mine, but it was an enjoyable and quick read. 

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Review of Wiley Cash’s “This Dark Road to Mercy”

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“This Dark Road to Mercy”

Wiley Cash

William Morrow, HarperCollins Publishers

January 2014

It’s not often you pick up a captivating read told mostly from the perspective of a child. Easter Quillby, Cash’s preteen protagonist, is intelligent and sweet. Despite her youth and naiveté, Easter is a compelling character who quickly gains the sympathy and understanding of the reader.

This incredibly moving novel shares the story of two sisters, Easter and Ruby who are orphaned by the death of their mother and by a father who signs away his parental rights. Left to the foster care system, they are trapped in a world that they don’t fully understand. They know they have grandparents up in Alaska, but they have no other family and they feel utterly alone. When their father, Wade Chesterfield, reenters their lives, it is easy to be whisked away from the foster home and into the backseat of his beat up car with the promise of a new family life. Easter is right to doubt her father’s sincerity. He is wanted for criminal theft and now kidnapping. Although his action are not thoroughly thought out and he is not making wise decisions for a man who wants to gain custody of his children, he does seem genuinely motivated to reunite his broken family once more. 

The story is told from three perspectives: twelve-year-old Easter Quillby, her guardian Brady Weller, and ex-baseball player turned thug Pruitt. Easter is the perfect narrator for the story. On the cusp of becoming a young woman, she looks at her world critically and seeks to understand her situation and the actions of those around her. She is a caring girl who displays strong mothering tendencies for her six-year-old sister while simultaneously struggles with the fear of her own childishness. She wants to appear brave, calm, and strong, just as an adult would. She repeats to Wade many times, “I am not afraid.” She moves between trusting this man who abandoned her family (the more childish side of her) and her wariness of her (the beginnings of her adult-like thinking). She is a strong character who drives the story and sucks the reader in.

Weller’s chapters provide a contrast to Easter’s. He begins to see her as the daughter that he’d lost custody of after he’d killed a boy in a DUI accident years previous. As an ex-cop, ex-husband, and nearly ex-father, he seeks to make amends with his daughter Jessica, but pours his guilt and his devotion for his daughter into the search for the Quillby girls. At first, I had little sympathy for Weller and I was annoyed by his chapters. But as Weller began to take control of his situation and began to take action to recover the missing girls, I began to admire his drive and his bravery. He redeems himself by making the right, although perhaps the foolish choices as a father figure. 

The chapters I could have lived without were Pruitt’s. I enjoyed these chapters for their aid in rounding out Wade’s character. Pruitt’s experiences and perspectives help the reader to understand Wade as a father and as a man full of regret and shame, but also fatherly love for his daughters. Pruitt’s thoughts and actions as described from his perspectives did not lend much to the overall plot of the story other than to give the reader an inside perspective on Wade and the criminals seeking to eliminate him. I feel as though the story would have been stronger without his perspective, but they did not detract from the overwhelming impact of the rest of the novel.

Other than Pruitt, I found the characters to be well-rounded and likeable. I understood their motivations and their actions. The setting was clearly defined and easy to follow. Cash’s narrative style is clear, concise, and smooth. There was not a moment of boredom and the plot never dragged. 

Emotionally moving and captivating, Cash’s “This Dark Road to Mercy” is a must read for 2014. Keep an eye out for this exciting tale!

Lawrence Hill’s “Some Great Thing”

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Some Great Thing

Lawrence Hill

Published: 1992

Publisher: Harper Perennial

ISBN: 978-1-55468-694-0

Written by the same author who brought us The Book of Negroes, the novel Some Great Thing tells the story of Winnipeg native, Mahatma Grafton, a young and passionate journalist. As a young black man with a very unique name, Mahatma faces assumptions about race and identity. He searches for the perfect stories, trying to make a name for himself in the journalistic world, while upholding the moral values instilled in him by his father. He struggles with the intrusive nature of journalism into the lives of those suffering loss or injury. Mahatma finds himself reporting on the heated conflicts that arise from issues surrounding French-language rights in Manitoba, or on the struggle with welfare faced by a poor man named Jack Corbett. As his stories are twisted by his editor, Mahatma learns that the world of journalism is not always a place of morality, but is often the site of fabrication for the sake of politics and economic gain.

Hill’s writing is captivating. I had no idea that I owned this novel until it surfaced from my book pile a few days ago. Having read The Book of Negroes–a book that had me spellbound–a few years ago, I was extremely interested in reading Hill’s new novel when I saw his name. I hadn’t intended to read this book so quickly, however yesterday, caught up in Hill’s sweet words, I read almost the entire thing.

Being relatively close to Mahatma’s age, and in a similar position of finishing my education and seeking a career, I related closely to the protagonist. Mahatma comes uncertainly into journalism and finds his footing, his talent, and his voice as a writer. He gains fame nationwide, and to an extent, internationally in Cameroon. ‘Hat’ makes a name for himself and learns how to make a living in an ethical and respectable way. His struggle to do what’s right versus what his editor wants him to do is a constant battle throughout the novel.

I would have liked to see a different title on Hill’s novel. Some Great Thing doesn’t seem captivating enough to hint at the wonderful story inside. It is vague and lacking in intrigue. Something bolder and more direct would strength the overall impression of Mahatma’s story. For all of the racial, language, and economic conflicts that occur within these pages, the title lacks any indication of these themes.

I would have also liked to see further development in Mahatma’s opposition, Edward Slade. Slade is the typical writer-gone-tabloid journalist who deteriorates from respectable reporter to gossip columnist who seeks out any news-worthy events without regard to correct research or sympathy for the interviewees. Slade is motivated by his jealousy of Mahatma’s success and his desire to defeat his opponent in journalistic competition. The reader sees Slade as the slimy reporter who does everything necessary to get a story, but who has no concern for those affected by the story. It would have given Slade more depth if more time had been spent on his thoughts and his perspective, rather than being views from a third-person perspective observing his actions from afar.

Other than these two very minor details, I thoroughly enjoyed this read. Mahatma was a very interesting and well-rounded character. Other characters in his life have compelling stories: Helene Savoie who gave up speaking French as a young girl only to return to the language after being inspired by Mahatma, Chuck Maxwell who has limited education but has worked on the newspaper since he was a teenager, and Yoyo who is visiting Manitoba from Cameroon who becomes the unifying international connection between two vastly different cities. Each character in this story helps to build a unique and interesting setting for Mahatma’s story.

I would definitely recommend this read, especially if you enjoyed The Book of Negroes. Although dealing with vastly different topics, Hill’s narratives are easy to sink into and tell captivating tales of struggle and triumph.