Book Review: Godsend

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Killing our fellow human beings in the name of some religious teaching has been going on for as long as man has believed in one of the many gods available. Holy books may talk of compassion but they also endorse punishment for those who break their rules. It suits the arbiters when followers live their lives in fear of how they will be treated after death. Religion is about power in the here and now.

Godsend explores the skewed thinking of believers who are willing to kill and die for their god. It opens in California where we are introduced to eighteen year old Aden Grace Sawyer. Aden is angry with the small world she knows, especially how it has been treating her. Recently divorced, her parents view her subsequent conversion to Islam as a petty rebellion against their indecorous behaviour. They do not understand that Aden is using her faith to fill a void and give life purpose.

Aden’s father is a professor of Islamic studies and introduced his daughter to the religion, teaching her Arabic and how to read the Qur’an. He often talked of his time abroad as a young man learning in a madrassa. Aden has informed him that she plans to travel to the Emirates to do the same. Online she met a boy, Decker, and has arranged the trip with him. Unbeknown to her parents, their destination is a school in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. As a female, Aden would not be permitted to study in this place so she has cut off her hair and will present herself as a boy. She will become Suleyman Al-Na’ama.

Aden leaves America with no plans to return as she wishes to live in a country ruled by fellow believers. On arrival she shocks Decker by telling him they will no longer have sex. She strives to follow doctrine yet must hide behind the falsehood of her disguise. Keeping this secret grants Decker power.

Both Aden and Decker are naive but determined. They claim not to wish to become involved in the fighting over the border but under new influences this will change. Aden seeks an acceptance from others that has, in her short life thus far, eluded her. She doesn’t yet understand that as an American she will never truly be trusted in Afghanistan. If uncovered as a girl here she will, at the very least, be treated as a chattel.

The layers of the story explore the hypocrisy of believers as they cherry-pick which rules to adhere to. There are rivalries and jealousies as they seek personal glory or revenge. The jihadists regard America as depraved and impious. They are willing to die for a cause that they continue to sin against.

In a searing coming-of-age Aden learns that, despite her willingness to comply, she is as alone and derided in Afghanistan as she was in America. Her dreams of escaping the influences of her home country are violently shattered.

“- This war has nothing to do with America, she managed to stammer.
– There is no such war anywhere on earth, Suleyman, the captain said quietly. – America itself has seen to that.”

The calm and beauty to be found in religious observance is shown to be a veneer for intolerance. The pared down prose avoids the rhetoric and hysteria often associated with radicalisation and terrorism. The rhythm and pacing of the story take the reader on a deftly written adventure with a heart in mouth denouement.

Any Cop?: It is a tale to challenge perceptions of morality and its imposition.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: What Will Remain

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What Will Remain, by Dan Clements, is ‘a war novel born out of the author’s own experiences of serving with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan’. It is visceral writing. The opening pages left me feeling punched in the gut, as I did watching the opening sequence of the film Saving Private Ryan. It is uncompromising and stunningly portrayed.

Told in the first person, the book consists of a series of vignettes which bring to life the daily challenges faced by foot soldiers serving on the front line of a battlefield far from all they have previously known. The men are on patrol, under attack, holed up in camps, coping with the death and disfigurement of comrades. There is fear, exhaustion, boredom and necessary camaraderie. This is no boy’s own flavour of war. Life on both sides of the conflict is debased.

Soldiers are trained to follow orders over instinct. Their mindsets must be altered to overcome primordial, life preserving fear. Once this has been achieved it is little wonder that they return home damaged. To move on they may need to put those they experienced such hell with aside. The shared memories can bring back unbearable pain.

“there are only these pieces left to me, scattered and disordered and incomplete, troubled orphan memories that find no solace in the grand old stories.”

The foot soldiers are directed by officers, disparaged by many for their remove from deadly action. When an act of heroism is picked out as worthy of honour, discomfort is felt. The hollow proclamations of the world mean little beside “every small and careful and honest thing that truly was accomplished, and at such awful cost.” If a soldier accepts a public honour must he also accept authorship of the rest?

Mention is made of how the Afghans treat their women, expecting them to stay at home to serve their husband and family. Afghan men have no qualms about claiming the right to beat their wives. I found it ironic that the soldiers valued their pornography and gifted each other posters of topless women with large breasts. They too regarded females as objects existing for their gratification.

Yet how can we who have never been made to experience war judge how those on the front line should behave? If their actions appear degenerate is it them or what they are forced to endure? By the end of the book the protagonist has returned to England, first to recuperate from injury and then to rejoin society. These later stories demonstrate how hard such adjustments can be.

The war poets express the futility of such conflicts. This tale brings home the mental as well as physical damage caused to individuals who chose to fight for their country, perhaps not understanding what soldiering would entail. Families who took pride in their partner or offspring’s achievements struggle to deal with them once returned. To cope the soldiers must try to forget.

“As a child you know nothing. As an adolescent you know everything. And the rest of your life is that slow, difficult process of unlearning all those things you once thought you knew.”

A searing depiction of war that challenges the popular notion of bravery. This is a challenging and captivating read.