Godsend review: Inspired by the real-life story of John Walker Lindh
John Wray’s dialogue is laden with tension and suspense
A photo of John Walker Lindh from the record of Arabia Hassani Kalan Surani Bannu madrassa (religious school) in Pakistan’s north western city of Bannu. Photograph: Tariq Mahmood/ AFP/ Getty Images)
Set in late 2001, Godsend is inspired by the real-life story of John Walker Lindh, a Muslim convert who was imprisoned by the Americans as an enemy combatant in the Afghan war that followed the 9/11 attacks. Its protagonist is Aden, an 18-year-old Californian woman who travels to Pakistan, disguises herself as a boy and enrols at a madrassa. The resident mullah, who has a nose for these things, warns her: “Your feeling for scripture is a desperate one . . . such feeling can tip easily toward violence.” His hunch is correct: Aden – who has taken the name Suleymane – scarpers across the border into Afghanistan and joins an Islamist training camp, where she learns the rudiments of bomb-making and guerrilla warfare.
The camp is populated by Arabs and Chechens, and Aden’s Americanness is a source of intrigue and mistrust to her new comrades: “Her strangeness was itself a burka that withheld her likeness from them.” Therein lies the peculiar paradox of the Western-born convert: though signed up to an ideology that seeks to eradicate heterogeneous identities – what Isis propaganda calls the “grey zone” – they are themselves, inescapably, quintessential globalists. Aden’s disguise adds a further layer of distance: “She had never felt so closely watched or so unseen.”
She finds an unlikely ally in the form of a Pashtun fighter called Ziar, a veteran of the mujahideen who had fought against the Russians in the 1980s.
John Wray’s narration abounds with descriptions of topography and regionally specific cuisine. A typical passage begins: “They climbed all that morning through washes of traprock and ash-coloured scree fields and gorges down which streams of runoff fell.”
His dialogue is laden with tension and suspense as his heroine walks a dangerous tightrope: if her gender-switching ruse is exposed, the consequences could be catastrophic. Then there is the small matter of evading the wrath of the Americans.
At one point, Aden narrowly avoids being killed in a drone missile strike: “It seemed to her not that missiles were colliding with houses but that houses were rising up into the clouds. It seemed more a weather pattern than a technological event.” All of this makes for a compelling adventure story, but the psychological dimension is conspicuously under-explored.
There is a brief allusion to a troubled childhood and an alcoholic mother; as events unfold, however, we are afforded only fleeting glimpses of Aden’s inner life, and these are often couched in clichés. Upon arriving in Pakistan, her sense of how far she had travelled “made her feel weightless as a bird”; later, in a moment of crisis, “A sensation of timelessness stole over her with the weight of a drug and made the scene before her seem arbitrary and unreal”; she grabs a gun “as if in a dream”, and so on.
To wonder what Godsend offers that could not be achieved by, say, a three-part TV drama is perhaps to miss the point: as every jobbing author will tell you, screen adaptations are where the real money is; why bust a gut writing a Dostoevskian masterpiece when a proto-screenplay might actually pay the bills?
Godsend has some curious stylistic frills. One sentence reads: “He shook his head patiently . . . as she’d seen her father do times without number.” Times without number? A hundred pages later, it happens again: “they followed the river, fording and refording it times without number”. When archaic diction features in dialogue, it is apposite and realistic. For instance, Aden’s interlocutors will say “persons” rather than “people”, a bureaucratic-sounding turn of phrase not uncommon in the version of English spoken in the Middle East. But it jars in third-person narration, especially since the novel’s register is, for the most part, taut and contemporary.
If the idea was to connote a sense of otherworldliness – evocative of scripture and hallowed, faraway places – then I daresay the author has succumbed to a little bit of the same dubious fetishism that inspired Aden to embark on her mission.