I’m not sure what all goes on in the mind of Michael Gruber, but I’m delighted he’s decided to share some of his thoughts with us. Any book of his I’ve ever read has been totally thought provoking and sometimes an almost mystical experience. That sounds corny, but it’s true—he’s a profound thinker disguised as a mystery writer. This outing deals with the differences between the cultures of the United States and the cultures of various Muslim nations, but most notably Pakistan. There’s hardly a topic more timely, of course, and Gruber will make you examine any preconceived ideas you might possibly have about Muslims, and maybe even get you to question some of your own about our own culture. That sounds tedious, though, doesn’t it? Gruber is far from a tedious writer, however, and this book is no exception.
The two main characters (though they use several names, I’ll use just one variant for clarity here), Sonia and Theo Bailey, are mother and son, with a complicated relationship. Sonia grew up in the circus and her mother was eaten by a lion when she was young—the circus folks train her up as a card sharp and a sleight of hand artist, something that comes into play later in the book. Eaten by lions, you ask? That’s the very kind of narrative detail that Gruber, for some reason, is able to get away with, and I’m not really sure why that’s true. Sonia eventually meets and marries Farid Laghari, a lawyer from a prominent Pakistani family, and she settles with him in his family’s home, where she gives birth to Theo.
Sonia struggles with her role as a traditional Begum, or Pakistani wife, and she eventually runs off and goes on a haj, something only permitted to Muslim men. She disguises herself as one and writes about it, earning the eternal dislike of her husband’s family. Because of this there’s a fatwa out on her and when she calls Theo at the beginning of the story to tell him she’s going back to Pakistan after an absence of many years, he is understandably worried.
For various reasons I won’t go into here, as I don’t want to give away too many plot details, Theo ends up growing up as a wild muslim soldier boy on eternal jihad. When his mother finally catches up with him and brings him to America, he eventually joins the Army, where he becomes deep cover special forces. That is the set up of a thriller, but when it’s combined with the fact that Sonia and her party (a conference of international scholars meeting to talk about peace in the Middle East) are taken hostage, the suspense is really amped up.
Gruber is a very detailed writer. Some of the things he includes in his stories are so unique that almost any tangent he takes you on is an interesting one, and they always tie back into the story. While the complex narrative threads are eventually sorted at the end of the book, the real meat of the story is Gruber’s look at the two very different cultures. He will definitely make you think about the U.S. approach to any foreign nation, and he helps you to understand some of the beauty of the essential Muslim culture. I thought the ending was a teeny bit too coincidental, but as I was reading it, I accepted it. And I’m glad I took the journey. More than almost any other writer, Gruber leaves you thinking as you finish the book, and I feel certain that’s his plan. It’s an excellent one.