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Christopher's mother, Rose, has dedicated her life to finding out what really happened to her son, who disappeared after the raid in which Jonas's village was destroyed. When Jonas meets Rose, a shocking and painful secret gradually surfaces from the past, and builds to a shattering conclusion that haunts long after the final sentence. Told in spare, evocative prose, The Book of Jonas is about memory,
about the terrible choices made during war, and about what happens when foreign disaster appears at our own doorstep. It is a rare and virtuosic novel from an exciting new writer to watch.
What is it like to lose everything? Younis was first asked this question by a well-meaning development worker, a friendly young man whose specialty was working in war zones. They sat across from each other in cheap plastic chairs beside a bomb-scarred house that served temporarily as a hospital. Just for a chat, he had been told. Just to see if he needed help, to see if he could be helped.
"It must be so difficult," said the man, whose face was serene, "to wake up one morning and see that life as you knew it has ended, that so much has been destroyed."
Despite his youth, Younis sensed immediately that the man was trying to get him to do something dangerous. His first instinct was to play it off, to make a grim joke of it—the house was getting old anyway; destruction as a form of camouflage; at least now we don't have to maintain the roof—anything to deflect the course of the inquiry.
But this would not do, he sensed, not with this man who sat across from him, this friendly man with his placid, expectant face. So how to answer?
Should he talk about his shaking hands, his trembling limbs, the ringing sound in his ear, his blurred vision? Should he describe his physical injuries, show him his wounds, the rudimentary stitches, now nearly ready to be removed, underneath the bandage on his forearm? Should he discuss the numerous times, after he fled into the mountains surrounding the village, that he stood at the cliff edge, wind rushing up into his face, and nearly felt himself take a step off, unconcerned whether he fell or flew?
Or should he talk about—and this was what he found to be the odd thing—the blessing of it? The surprise of finding himself alive, finding himself connected to life. Should he talk about the days after he ran into the mountains, about feeling surrounded, even in that barren place, by life? About the plants that seemed to vibrate with it? Butterflies and rock mice and ants and caterpillars and snow hare and everything he looked at, even the stones, seemed alive. On the mountain he once came face-to-face with a dark falcon riding low on the thermals, wind whooshing through his feathers, and felt one with him, felt peace, as though just by watching the great bird, just by following his example, he could stretch his arms and lift his feet from the ground.
Or should he say that the thing was now part of him, defined him, founded him, that he could no more describe its effect than he could describe being born?
What is it like to lose everything, they ask. The question takes various forms, and that day, sitting in plastic chairs beside a shattered house, he developed his one and only response.
"What is it like to lose everything?" asked the man, the stranger who was there to help.
And Younis fixed him with his pale green eyes and said, "What is it like not to?"
He has a memory, or thinks he does.
They are on the train, the old colonial line running alongside the river to the capital. He lies on the wooden, time-polished bench and rests his head in his mother's lap. Thinking he is asleep, she has draped a loose muslin cloth over his head to cut the sunlight that flickers at them through the passing trees. They are going to meet someone, his father, he thinks. Every so often the wind puffs through the open windows and billows the soft cloth, startling him with a strobe of sunshine, like the bright end of a run-out movie reel.
On the station platform, they stand under a broad roof, which is supported by riveted metal beams, and the engine whistles out a last burst of steam. When the fog clears, a man stands as though he has been waiting since the station was built. He is dressed strangely, in Western clothes, jeans and a starched button-down shirt. His face is freshly shaven, and he carries a backpack made of rough canvas. He takes something from one of the pockets, a little square parcel, carefully wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine, and hands it to Younis's mother, who tucks it quickly away into her shift. It is this he remembers, this package, this passing of something important between them. He has so many questions—Why is he dressed this way? Why has he shaved off his beard?—but when he turns back to ask, the man has gone, disappeared into the throng outside the station gates.
Other things must have happened. They may have stayed a time in the capital, he and his mother, lodging in a cousin's whitewashed spare room near the bazaar. Maybe they bought figs and lamb for their supper, and sipped sweet tea purchased from a vendor's cart. Perhaps, when they heard the call to prayer in the evening, they wandered over to the turreted mosque, washed their feet, and knelt down on the worn rugs. Surely at some point they took the train back home, up the river and into the low hills. But if they did any of these things, as they must have done, he can remember none of them.
And it is this that makes him suspicious, makes him wonder: Maybe it didn't really happen. His inability to remember large parts of the experience makes him question all of it: the carefully wrapped parcel, the riveted beams on the platform, the clean-shaven man who should have worn a beard. Maybe it is all just something he heard about or read much later, his imagination filling in the details and making it his own, something he saw one time, something from a film.
He changes his name on the airplane. Somewhere over the Atlantic he assumes his new identity. The flight attendant hands out white-and-blue landing cards, and he borrows a ballpoint pen from the woman sitting next to him to write out his new name—J-O-N-A-S—in the space provided, right next to the space that gives his age: fifteen. Thus named and dated, he signs the card underneath the paragraph explaining that he waives all his legal rights by doing so—his right to counsel, his right to privacy, his right to oppose deportation. He suspects this will cause trouble; he does it anyway. At customs he will be interrogated for hours, kept in a white room with a veneer-top table and steel folding chairs until someone from the Friends International Assistance Society shows up to bail him out. Or later, at his new school, he will explain to anyone who asks—the math teacher, the English teacher, the assistant principal, the head principal—that legally his new name is a direct translation of his old name, even though he feels intuitively that this is not quite true. He knows that the law and the truth are rarely the same thing.
The plane's motion nauseates him, and in an effort to relieve it, he looks out the Plexiglas oval at the blue void below, the gently curving skyline. Occasionally, he spots an island riding the dark sea, marked by a puff of white cumulus. In the plane, he finds it easy to imagine himself floating between two worlds, two existences, each of them true, but does not yet realize that this is a feeling that will never completely leave him.
The female flight attendant has been joined by a skinny, dark-haired man, and together they wheel the clanking metal food cart down the aisle, passing out foil-covered trays, plastic utensils, and plastic, foil-covered cups of distilled water. The action is polite and efficient. Jonas's meal is chicken and some sort of yellowed rice, which he eats with a voraciousness that seems to embarrass his seatmate, an elderly woman with large eyes and an open face.
The airplane lavatory smells of disinfectant and dry air, and seems to aggravate the ringing in his right ear. A sign on the wall warns him that he may be fined three thousand dollars and sent to jail for damaging or disabling the smoke detector. The notion that a smoke detector might exist in the bathroom of an airplane, much less the impulse to damage or disable it, had not previously entered his mind, but now that it has, he wonders how punishment might be exacted, were he so inclined. He has fifty dollars in his pocket, and a small duffel of clothes in the hold, both of which have been given to him by the society, the combination of which constitutes the entirety of his worldly possessions.
Back in his seat, he looks again at his name, written in block capitals in the demarcated spaces on the landing card, and he underlines it with the borrowed pen. The woman, who is sitting on his left, near his good ear, has fallen asleep. He puts the pen down on the tray table and looks at the long, pale scar running up the dark skin on the back of his arm and under his rolled-up shirtsleeve.
"Where did you get that," the woman beside him had asked.
"I fell off a mountain," he had said.
He is beginning to feel claustrophobic in the sealed, pressurized tube. He is tall, constantly mistaken for being older than he is, and his knees knock into the back of the seat in front of him. He can't get comfortable, can't stretch out, and for a moment he fights off a wave of panic. He is surrounded by plastic and metal, which confine him to a predetermined form, a standard that does not comfortably fit him. He pushes his knees again into the back of the seat in front of him, and its occupant shifts, pushing back against him in a kind of warning.
Eventually, a bell dings, and he feels a sinking sensation in his stomach and legs as the plane begins its descent. He fights off another wave of nausea as he folds up his tray table and is told by two different flight attendants to incline his seat. He explains, in nearly panicky tones, that it is broken and that it will not incline, and after this explanation he is left alone.
The ground rises up to meet him, and he feels himself jolted forward, pushes himself into the back of his chair as the plane slows forcefully. When the plane turns from the runway, the gently rolling landscape scrolls past his window like a diorama. How lush, how green it looks! Ivy climbing the massive, broad-leafed trees, the atmosphere so thick with humidity that he can see it. And then before he realizes, the plane has rolled up to the gate, and there is a rush for the overhead luggage, and a wafting of heavy, wet air as the door is opened, and they are in the aisles, pushing forward, and he has trouble getting his feet underneath him, trips on a blanket someone has left on the floor, grabs a seat back for support, and it is happening so fast he can't believe it, and he stumbles off the plane and into his new world.
The last time he saw his village he was five thousand feet above it.
Sometimes it comes back to him at a word, or a sound, or a scent, and he can see the faint trace of smoke rising toward him like a prayer. From this height he can see the village's broken shell, its careful, jigsaw delineations—yards and orchards and streets—scratched and blurred like a sand castle set upon by a toddler.
Paul tells him that he tends to dissociate.
Jonas goes to see Paul once a week, as he has done since the high school became concerned that he might have been suffering from the results of something traumatic, something they couldn't handle. They suggested that he go see Paul because Paul was someone who knew about these things. Paul had experience. Paul could help him.
Actually, it was slightly more than a suggestion. "We can get a court order," they said, "but we prefer you go voluntarily."
They have been meeting regularly ever since.
During these meetings, they talk about the state of his mental health, which Paul has called, on more than one occasion, "pretty good." Paul has bushy hair and a goatee, and he looks a little bit like a young Karl Marx, an effect amplified by his tendency to explain things in the somewhat dry tones of an economics professor.
"Dissociation is a normal reaction," says Paul. "It's a defense mechanism. And given the circumstances, a certain amount of mental decompensation is probably also to be expected." Paul doesn't seem to understand that this is gibberish until that fact is pointed out to him, and when it is, he tries to make a simplified explanation.
"I know it can feel like touching a hot stove," he says. "Your reflex is to pull your hand away. Your psyche is trying to stem the pain. But to deal with it, to get past it, eventually you are going to have to leave your hand on the stove awhile."
On his desk, Paul has a little silver statue on a marble base. It has sort of a funny shape which is hard to describe, like a wave or an ellipse. Paul tells Jonas that this statue may be used as a focal point, a device to bring him back to the present. It doesn't have to be the statue, he says. It could be anything: a candle, a piece of wood, a lamp, a ball or knickknack, anything, really, but he likes to use this statue because its shape is open to interpretation.
"You are here now," says Paul. "The past is gone, done. Your memories can't physically hurt you. But we need to explore them. We need to understand what happened."
And then they talk.
Five Questions for Stephen Dau
You open an early chapter of The Book of Jonas with the question, "What is it like to lose everything?" Would you say that is the central question in the book?
In a way, yes. The characters in the book certainly do lose things, whether loved ones or illusions or innocence. But the story is really more about responding to loss. It's not really a book about people being victimized, although that happens along the way. The characters embody a certain range of possible responses to loss. And while their losses are incredibly painful, their responses help define their humanity, and hold the potential for renewal, redemption and hope, or lack thereof. At its core it's about empowerment, about the ownership of experience, about making decisions and seeing them through and taking responsibility for life as it is, in the here and now, rather than being repeatedly victimized by the past or being scared off by the future. In fact, each of the characters actually takes concrete responsibility in some way for decisions made far away, by those in power who generally act with impunity.
Writing is your second career after having worked in postwar reconstruction and international development. Did you always want to write?
Ever since I was young. I have a memory of trying to write a book on a sheet of notebook paper when I was about eight years old, and I've always been a voracious reader. I got an undergraduate degree in writing, and when I graduated I was sort of set to write journalism or fiction or something. But then I spent a long time trying not to write. I suspected that pursuing writing seriously would be a difficult path. With only one or two exceptions, all the writers I know of have gone through periods of rejection, sometimes long periods, sometimes very long periods, and I was scared of that. So instead I naively decided that I was going to go off and try to save the world. Much easier to do, right? I worked for a series of non-profits, mostly doing international development types of things. But they tended to be pretty open-ended about what they meant by "development," and I often found myself unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. I'm entirely certain this is my own shortcoming, rather than something inherent to the work. Which is not to say that overall it wasn't interesting and valuable experience. But I was getting older, and at a certain point I realized that if I was going to try to do this "writing thing," as I had come to think of it, I was going to have to get started. The great thing about writing, as compared to a lot of other jobs, is that when you're writing a book, you're creating an object, something tangible, something that hopefully has some sort of value, which you'll then turn around and try to sell. This probably has a lot to do with my Pittsburgh roots, but that process feels honorable, like carpentry. You can't just show up. You have to do something while you're there, create something, which makes it, for me, both harder and more rewarding. And when I finally started pursuing it seriously, it felt like at last I had found a job that fit.
Did your own experiences working overseas in postwar reconstruction inspire any specifics in The Book of Jonas?
Not in terms of specific scenes or events, but that experience definitely informs much of the novel. One thing it reinforced was the sense of the humanity of people caught in the kinds of situations we read about or see on the news, the fact that they are real, actual human beings, like all of us, and that what's presented to us as news can't capture even a tenth of the reality of their situations, which are always so much more complex and nuanced and far-reaching than a two-minute news segment can capture. I'm sure that sounds almost trite, and it's certainly not an insight you have to go off to a war zone or disaster area to gain, but it seems important to state it and restate it, over and over, to remind ourselves of the human costs of our decisions at a time when so much of what we know of the world is reduced to strategy and statistics.
The narrative moves often between numerous points-of-view: Jonas's thoughts, memories, and dreams, Rose's experiences, Christopher's diary, and even some news articles. Why did you choose this means to tell your story?
We live in a culture that is extraordinarily good at categorizing people. Soldier. Mother. Terrorist. In the context of public discourse, these labels are applied and we are then expected to stop thinking. We are led to believe that if we can categorize someone, we immediately know the core of that person's existence. The category becomes a shorthand, and this process is its own form of dehumanization. To tell this story, it seemed important to try to humanize all sides of it, to break through those labels, and using multiple points of view seemed to be the best way to do that. As for the three or four news articles used in the book, I suppose it's a way of illustrating the proportion of the whole story we receive when we rely on them.
Who have you discovered lately?
There are so many that I could go on for days, and the list would never feel inclusive enough. As I write this, I'm sitting on my couch beside a small, booked-up coffee table. Here's a complete annotated list of what's on it:
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje—predictably gorgeous. He's an author whose book I'll buy just because his name is on it.[The English Patient was a Discover pick in 1992. –Ed]
Atlantic by Simon Winchester—I read a lot of nonfiction, particularly historical nonfiction, particularly a specific subgenre of historical nonfiction that relates the history of the world by examining a discreet topic in detail. So I had to get this one. Salt, by Mark Kurlansky is another. I've heard 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created is another, but I haven't read it yet.
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht—one of those spectacular books that actually lives up to the hype.
Starting Out in the Evening, by Brian Morton—"Quiet beauty," is a phrase overused in describing novels, but it fits this one perfectly. The Paris scene in particular gets me every time I read it.
Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston—I bought this in graduate school, where Bret teaches. It's a series of essays by established writers about the process of writing, and I refer to it all the time.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid—I haven't read this yet, but it's next on the list. It came highly recommended, and I read the first chapter standing in a corner at Shakespeare & Company in Paris and was hooked. [The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a B&N Recommends selection in 2007, and Hamid's earlier novel, Moth Smoke, was a Discover Great New Writers selection in 2000. –Ed.]
The Wandering Falcon, by Jamil Ahmad—Okay, this is actually next on the list to read. It was enthusiastically recommended to me by my father-in-law, this fact alone meaning that I have to read it next. [The Wandering Falcon was a Holiday 2011 Discover selection. –Ed.]
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern—then again, maybe this one will be next.
Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan—Or maybe this one.
Some books that will be appearing on the coffee table as soon as they are released:
Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman—I've read two of the stories from this debut collection, and they are beautiful, and I have a feeling the rest of them are equally so. [Birds of a Lesser Paradise is also a Spring 2012 selection of the Discover Great New Writers program. –Ed]
The Book of Why, by Nicholas Montemarano—Ondaatje is one author I'll buy whenever I see his name on the cover. Here is another.
Zombie, by J. R. Angelela—I suspect "rollicking" might be the best over-used adjective for this book, and having experienced live readings of portions of it, I'm looking forward to it with a mix of excitement and anxiety, like a scene from Pulp Fiction.
Waging Heavy Peace(working title), by Neil Young—When one of the best writers around finally writes a book, you read it.
Posted March 19, 2012
Fifteen year old Jonas is sent to America after his village is attacked and his family killed in the Middle East. Adjusting to his new life is challenging to say the least and he is required to see a therapist when it is apparent that things aren’t going well. In an attempt to heal he meets the mother of the U.S. Soldier that saved his life and he starts to open up about what really happened when his village was attacked. Secrets that Jonas has struggled with and protected for years suffocate the details that he will share.
This is one of those stories that will stay with me forever. As a military wife I read this with open eyes about war and what it does to people, so I was surprised by the accuracy because usually people overdo it and get it wrong. Jonas’ character was so rich and clear that I felt like I knew him and I could easily sympathize with him. The emotion of the story was so realistic that I felt this story just as much as I read it, which doesn’t happen as much as I would like. Needless to say, this was a hard one to put down even when I read the last page. I will not be able to recommend this one enough.
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 22, 2012
Posted January 19, 2013
This heart wrenching novel is captivating from start to finish. Reading the book, I felt like I was there with the main character, Jonas, and was so anxious to get to the end and figure the whole story out. I liked that the book was not specific to a certain country and did not take sides, allowing the reader to really empathize with all of the characters. It’s a quick read, but definitely one that is worth it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 15, 2012
Posted July 14, 2012
I absolutely loved this book. I enjoyed the writing style of the author. The emotions that all of the characters felt, especially Jonas and Christopher, were made real and I felt that I could identify with them right away. I would definitely read it again.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 10, 2012
this is a very touching story of a journal of those who have served in a war, how the dealt with all the pyschological aftermath and as well as the trials and turbulations they went through. I have to admit at some parts I got a little lost and confused, but I think it was for other reasons then the book. I had a long wait for the book so I would consider reading it again.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 15, 2012
Simply put ... to the point - an evocative tale of war and choices. It is prose which gives perspective to recent events and the long-term effects of decisions we make.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 13, 2012
A character driven story written from the point of view of a young refugee who was sent to live in America after being found injured after an American attack on his village, in a presumably middle eastern country.
The journey he takes to come to terms with his own actions and the those of his rescuer are a compelling look into what happens to individuals when faced with the impossible choices of war: group pressure and individual responsibility, and how it affects us and those around us.
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 8, 2012
I loved this story from start to finish. As a veteran i found myself able to identify with Christopher, a soldier who saves Jonas life; and I was challenged to see the perspective of the civilian in war through Jonas. I was found myself so engrossed in the novel that i had read it cover to cover in one sitting. I would say this is a must read for anyone who knows someone affected by war, or if you yourself were. I look forward to more work from this author.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 6, 2012
I consider The Book of Jonas no less than a stunning, masterful piece of work. It’s hard to believe that it’s a debut novel. Stephen Dau is able to weave together a compassionate picture of the many victims of war and how their lives intersect regardless of geological location, nationality, religion, gender or age. I do not profess to be a reader of “war stories,” and generally stay clear of violence in my reading. This book deserves far better than to be pigeon holed into any simplistic category. It is far too sensitive. It stretches the reader to think outside the box. The beauty and symbolism throughout took my breath away. For the first time in many years, I have bought multiple copies of a book to give friends.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 21, 2012
That's all I can saw is wow. This book is amazing and totally worth a read, not once but twice or even more then that. Every little word in this book is worth it. Stephen Dau is one of the best authors I have ever been blessed to read. For his first time, he blew it out of the water. And again, all I can say is wow.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 14, 2012
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Posted May 24, 2012
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Posted December 27, 2012
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Posted November 14, 2012
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