Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Michael Gruber's Good Son

I once made an attempt at a Gruber novel, The Book of Air and Shadows, because he's such a well reviewed author and I do enjoy reading outside my comfort zone. Perhaps it was the reader, maybe my mind was elsewhere, but I didn't hang with it and now I'm thinking that I should revisit that error.

When I began listening to The Good Son I got the same sense of impatience, wanting the novel to catch me up in it immediately. I'm so unfair to a writer in that respect. When I decide on what to discuss for book groups, I always go for the book that grabs me from the first sentence. In Gruber's case, I'm pleased to say that I cooled my jets and waited patiently for the story to get me. It did.

This is an extremely complicated combination of espionage, psychology, philosophy, and history that affords the reader an opportunity to get inside the heads of the so-called terrorists practicing jihad in the Islamic world. Two story lines compete for your attention, one here at the National Security Agency in the U.S. and the other in a remote Afghan village where an international group of pacifists is being held in captivity, having been kidnapped on their way to a conference in Kashmir. A third angle, Theo, son of one of the captives and Army black ops specialist, acts as the bridge between the other two.

It might sound as if it stretches credulity but, in fact, it works amazingly well. The book is long and to some readers it may seem to drag in parts, but those criticized sections are the ones I found most fascinating. Gruber does an outstanding job of examining the psychology of captivity, delving deeply into the mystery of why some people handle torture and face death with such fortitude, humor and peace, while others unravel with frightening speed.

Strong women abound in The Good Son! Pakistani-American Sonia Leghari, Theo's mother, is a marvelous creation. A Jungian psychotherapist, a career she was drawn to after receiving treatment herself for a psychic breakdown, Sonia has known the horrific losses that result from endless war. A controversial figure in the states and the object of a fatwa in Pakistan, Sonia uses her exceptional skills among her fellow captives to try to begin to make sense of their incarceration and to gain the respect of their jihadi captors.

The unfortunate group is comprised of Muslims, Catholics, Quakers, and Atheists, a situation that lends itself to long conversations about the nature of god and religion, prayer, sin, and forgiveness. It's again to Gruber's credit that these meanderings are one of the highlights of this strange and wonderful novel.

Back at the NSA, he gives us Cynthia, a woman whose incredible skill with languages places her in the middle of an intercept that may or may not have to do with a potential nuclear attack, the development and movement of weapons, or the executions of the pacifist captives. In typical government fashion, she is shuttled to the side and warned off when she dares to express an opinion contrary to those of her superiors. Will she become a rogue agent? Go off the reservation, as they say?

And what of Theo? A Pakistani at heart, more at home in Lahore than in DC, Theo is still getting physical therapy to treat wounds from his last foray into a war zone. Will he be able to call in old markers from his years as a famed mujaheddin in the Afghan/Russian war in time to find and rescue his mother? Does he even want to? I'm not telling.

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