Excerpt from The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Book of Jonas

by Stephen Dau

The Book of Jonas
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2012, 272 pages
    Feb 2013, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven

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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.

Excerpted from The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau. Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Dau. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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