Three voices speak in The Book of Jonas. The primary voice is that of Jonas, once Younis, the Muslim teen orphaned by an American military unit blitzing an unknown Middle Eastern village. As told through his personal notes, the second voice belongs to Christopher, an American soldier Missing in Action from the same unit. Christopher’s mother, Rose, offers the final voice of the grieving mother searching for the truth about her son’s disappearance.
This novel is not an indictment of the American military presence in the Middle East, nor is it a comparison of Christianity and Islam. Dau deftly avoids these politics in two ways. Jonas’ homeland is anonymous, so the reader is unaware of whether the region is extreme in its religious politics or on the brink of Western modernity. Furthermore, religious experiences and impressions are enumerated, not emotionally interpreted. Jonas’ host family, for example, is quoted as attempting to save Jonas through Jesus, but the offensiveness of such attempt is not expressed. Dau keeps the novel factual, as factual as memory will allow, and circumvents a book centered on the emotions of the Middle Eastern conflicts.
Instead, this novel focuses on the three voices’ search for truth and salvation. What each finds is that the very traditional construct of salvation, religious faith, fails them all. Dau rocks the notion that proclaiming faith in God, whatever the religion, will lead a traumatized soul to peace. Salvation occurs through choice and action, not through proclamation.
I can physically feel the restraint Dau required to write this novel. The temptation to write an emotionally charged bestseller (and perhaps one hit wonder) must have been unreal. How easy it would be to play on the current politics — and how timely it’s release would have been with Staff Sgt. Bales’ coincident breakdown. Perhaps the first modern classic, The Book of Jonas takes a modern setting and keeps it in the background in order to present a good bit of timeless philosophy.
The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau
Penguin Books 2102
Now available in paperback.