A really good book has the tendency to leave me speechless. There could be a hundred things to say about the book, but if I’ve fallen in love with it, like falling in love with a person—it’s about how it makes you feel and is hard to explain.
I enjoyed reading The Book of Jonas so much I started to feel guilty about the way it made me feel: calm, even serene. I can’t explain it, because the subject of this book is war, displacement, loss. There’s sadness and there’s anger, and while the war and the place we’re talking about is not specified, the teenage protagonist is from a Middle Eastern country, so while fiction, there’s also real life stuff.
Maybe that’s why it works. Dau writes with poetry and beauty so that even though his descriptions are often difficult and emotional, his words have a calming effect. Why so emotional? Imagine the life of someone whose village gets fired to pieces, whose family is killed, who is displaced and injured, and whose life is saved by Americans who take him to their foreign country where he assimilates. How would you feel? If your answer is “I have no idea,” that will change after reading The Book of Jonas. It’s an unimaginable situation, and Dau takes a stab at penning it.
His protagonist, Younis, or as he renames himself in America, Jonas, has a horrific history that he carries with him every day, but barely talks about. Throughout the book, we gradually come to learn the truth of his story that involves a young soldier, Christopher, whose path he crossed while fighting for his life on a mountaintop.
If you’re like me, you don’t know a whole lot about the following: war, the military, life in the Middle East. I don’t have any friends who have ever served. It’s partly the media’s fault for the way war is portrayed and what they don’t tell us. It’s partly my fault for not better informing myself. This is all to say that recent wartime has been a bit of a mystery to me and to a lot of us. I know that soldiers are coming home with severe injuries and PTSD (among other things) not to mention what it’s been like for Middle Eastern families. I can’t mention it, because I don’t know. I don’t really know what it’s like for any of these people and war feels very distant. Stephen Dau closes this gap.
In an interview with Powell Books, he talks about the initial inspiration for the book and remembers a press conference that George W. Bush gave after the invasion of Iraq: “One of the reporters asked him how many innocent civilians had been killed in Iraq. He looked at the guy who asked the question and said, ‘Oh, I think it’s around 30,000,’ as if he was reciting a bowling score.” Dau set out to tell a story, and while it’s not exactly a true story, it creates a context for what has happened in any number of places.
Not at all a dry or “historical” read, this book is very current and has an arresting gravity and is still a novel in the best way. Five stars, Dau.
Photos from stephendau.com