The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau is about many things - the effects of war, the refugee experience, the negative effects of repression, what it's like to be related to an MIA soldier - but it's mostly about the truth.
Jonas is a teenage boy from a deliberately unspecified country. The descriptions seem to fit Afghanistan but would likely also fit most war-torn countries in the Middle East. The U.S. military destroys his village, but Jonas is saved by Christopher, a U.S. soldier who later goes missing. Jonas comes to the United States alone. On the plane over to America, Jonas changes his name from Younis, for reasons he can't explain. The story of what really happened is one of the truths waiting to be explored in this novel.
The Book of Jonas is a great combination of emotional drama and compelling mystery. The narrative is not linear, but it's not hard to follow. It is broken into sections (confessional, atonement etc.) named after the parts of a religious ceremony and the descriptions in each narrate Jonas's experiences. For example, it is in the "confessional" section that we find out what really happened.
Jonas spends years in the U.S., graduates from high school, goes to college, has a girlfriend - all things you would expect of the average young American adult. But he never lets anyone get close to him. Though many people come to the U.S. for refuge, I thought Jonas's situation must be particularly difficult, since he moves to the country that was responsible for the death of his family.
Most of the book is written from Jonas's perspective, but we also see what life is like for Christopher's mother, Rose, after her son goes missing and is presumed dead. The reader also gets a peek at Christopher's perspective by reading parts of his journal. Though I've never been in the situations Dau describes, every word rings true emotionally. I could easily see myself making the same decisions Jonas, Christopher and Rose do. I spent most of the book wanting to help Jonas in some way, even if it was unclear if anyone really could.
The Book of Jonas makes no effort to examine the hows and whys of the fighting happening in Jonas's village. Dau's focus is the personal - how it feels to be a human being in that situation. How your actions can surprise you. How sometimes you do things and how you are never able to stop thinking about what you did.
The truth haunts all the characters in the novel. Christopher faced it, Jonas is trying hard to avoid it, and Rose just wants to know what it is. Several key scenes are described more than once - with different endings. But at the end of the book, I had no doubts about what really happened. I wonder if that is true for everyone - if every reader's version of the truth is the same as mine.
This review was originally published in September 2012, and has been updated for the February 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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