“What is it like to lose everything?” the young protagonist of Stephen Dau’s first novel, The Book of Jonas, is asked again and again by those hoping to fathom his experience of losing his entire family and village, in an unnamed Muslim country, to an American attack. And one day, writes Dau, “sitting in plastic chairs beside a shattered house, he developed his one and only response…. [He] fixed [the questioner] with his pale green eyes and said, ‘What is it like not
It is the principal challenge and achievement of this book to imagine the world from the perspective of someone for whom losing everything is the norm. Unusually, however, the book doesn’t take the experience of radical loss to be the province of any one nationality, religion, or gender; instead it juxtaposes the experience of those who are the victims of war with those who fight wars and those who wait at home. Its central character is the refugee Jonas (formerly Younis), who is brought to Pittsburgh as a high school student. There he meets Rose Henderson, whose son Christopher, a US soldier, went missing in the same attack that destroyed Jonas’s village. We come to know Christopher as well, through journal entries he makes in the wake of the attack, and we eventually suspect that he has suffered a loss as devastating as either Jonas’s or Rose’s.
Jonas and Christopher have met before, we learn, in the boy’s home country soon after the event that, in different ways, shattered both their lives. As the narrative progresses it slowly pieces together their encounter, even as Jonas’s life as a college student spirals out of control. The book is particularly good at conveying the way Jonas’s life is ravaged by the aftermath of trauma. Always happier to fight his way out of things than to accept help, Dau’s Jonas is never a victim. After several years in the States he eagerly begins college and falls in love with a fellow student, but the unfamiliarity of life in middle-class America eventually slides into dissociation and alcohol abuse.
If there’s a problem with the book, it’s that it’s so powerfully about both the costs and necessities of dissociation with regard to trauma, that its prose tends to instantiate that distance.
The last time he saw his village he was five thousand feet above it.
Sometimes it comes back to him as 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.
Many scenes, like this one, are described as if they were photographs. It’s beautifully done, and appropriate to the way Jonas views the world, but after a while one begins to feel as affectively flattened as the protagonist, wishing that more of those sounds or scents would break through into the prose of the narrative itself. At the height of his psychic crisis in America, “Jonas wakes up and cannot move. He wakes up and sees his dead mother at the foot of his bed. He wakes up floating over the world, totally unconnected and able to see everything, everyone in it.” When that crisis resolves itself, however, those connections to the world do not seem to return.
A number of recent novels have documented the devastating effect the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on the psyches of the young men who served there. Two—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds—were nominated for last year’s National Book Award. The emphasis on masculine vulnerability in these stories has been a welcome corrective to the cocksure bravado of narratives like Generation Kill. The Book of Jonas participates in this desire to lay bare the consequences of combat-related trauma; unlike the aforementioned books, however, Jonas travels beyond the territory of American soldiers and their families to offer another story told less often to the US reading public: that of the refugees whose families, communities and livelihoods have been destroyed as a byproduct of US military action, and who now must piece together new lives as they travel between worlds. Dau has spoken of being inspired to write the book after hearing George Bush cite the number of civilian casualties in the Iraq invasion “as if it were a bowling score.”1 “Someone has got to write one of their stories,” he thought at the time, and in an admirable act of narrative empathy, he has done so.