Stephen Dau‘s The Book of Jonas is one of those rare, shattering, lingering, breathtaking-at-unexpected-moments debut novels that arrive so perfectly formed you’re left both haunted (wondering what you could possibly read next to dispel the terror) and grateful (utterly so, that you were provided this literary gift).
The Book is actually not a single story, but three: Jonas, who reinvents himself from a sole survivor of his unnamed Middle Eastern (as written on the inside book jacket) or Central Asian (seemingly Afghan by description) village into an American-in-the-making; Christopher, a U.S. soldier stationed far from home, both taking and saving lives, who confesses his wartime actions in a hidden leather journal; and Rose, Christopher’s mother who still waits, if not for her son, then for some semblance of answers. To tell you more of the sparse, intricate narrative would surely be an injustice to your own discovery …
That said, might I share a few suggested details that might enhance your reading … although, I also encourage you to go directly to the book (via the page or stuck in your ears, so elegantly voiced by audible favorite Simon Vance) – I won’t take your redirection personally.
The title clearly indicates the importance of names: “Jonas” is a form of Jonah – as in ‘ … and the whale’ – and is as an Anglicization of the Arab name Younis/Yūnis; Christopher is the patron saint of travelers who protects against accidents and sudden death, usually depicted with a child in his arms. The good book is presented not unlike the religious text it suggests, its chapters marked from “Processional” to “Recessional,” with “Communion,” “Confession,” and “Benediction” in between.
The so-called “inerrant word of God” is filled with “internal inconsistencies,” and “the writings themselves live in metaphor, that they seek not to convey factual information, but to reveal larger truths.” The same might be said of the best fiction.
“‘Unfortunately … our country sometimes has a habit of making a mess with its left hand and cleaning it up with its right.’” Or at least tries to … except that in war, the question of ‘how’ gets impossibly blurred as collateral damage exponentially multiplies.
Pay attention to forms: “For everything he needs to do, there seems to be a corresponding form. …[T]he average person living in America will spend six months filling out forms.”
But be wary of easy labels: Victim, perpetrator, terrorist, refugee, criminal, man, boy, human, alien, arsonist, fireman, archivist, vandal, outsider – “He can neither place himself into context, nor can he be placed.”
And, if you got this far, heed the final word: READ.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult