At SIBA last fall, there was a tremendous buzz about this book. The publisher, Hachette, was bubbling over about it's positive initial reception, and insisted all the bloggers take a copy.
I know I'm probably going to sound like a shallow, predictable American by comparing my initial glance at "American Dervish" to "Cutting For Stone". Yes, both books are a coming-of-age novel about Indian boys, there are family issues and religious issues, and...the short synopsis for both did not inspire me.
It took me 2 1/2 years to finally tackle "Cutting For Stone"...and I loved it. I sat on my copy of "American Dervish" for 8 months before trusted audio file Literary Housewife raved about this book in the audio format and that pushed me to take the plunge.
Synopsis: Hyatt Shah is a bright pre-pubescent boy, the only son of an upper middle-class Pakistani-American family that lives in Milwaukee. His father is a doctor who has turned his back on his religion and has flagrant affairs, his mother is a tortured stay-at-homer who uses her son as a therapist for her marital woes.
The whole family dynamic shifts when Hyatt's mother's best friend Mina and her son come to live with them after a failed marriage in Pakistan. Mina is dynamic and beautiful, and awakens both Hyatt's sexuality and religious awareness. In Hyatt's fervor to please Mina, he vows to become Koran scholar, which is unforgivable in the eyes of his father. Additional tension is introduced when Mina falls in love with a Jewish colleague of Hyatt's father.
This ambitious debut novel delivers a rich array of complex conflicts in the Pakistani culture, such as misogyny, anti-Semitism (and general bigotry), old-world tradition versus the new generation, familial roles and hierarchies, and the difficulty of making sense of it all from a young boy's perspective.
My thoughts: The tricky part about really selling the beauty of this book is how to write a synopsis that captures the imagination. Yes yes yes, religion, growing up, family drama. On paper, it sounds a little high-brow and over-wrought. But it isn't. It is gorgeous.
The prose is lush and confident in its mission. The plot is so multi-layered and complicated, I was gripped throughout the entire book, almost as if I were reading a murder mystery! The characters are not always sympathetic personalities...the father cheats, the mother is a martyr, Mina allows herself to be a pawn, and Hyatt makes some very bad decisions that have far-reaching impacts on people's lives. There was conflict and tension oozing out of every chapter...there were times when I was spellbound and just couldn't stop listening.
The level of hatred that Muslims have towards Jews, and their specific beliefs on WHY the Jews deserve this animosity, shocked me. I found this insight enlightening and jarring. And horrifying. Yet with such an inflammatory topic, Akhtar handles it with delicacy and grace. In fact, this was not the only subject that was explosive here, but Akhtar navigates through them all with the skill of a seasoned writer.
A few words about the audio production: Had I not read Literate Housewife's review, I would have been nervous about the fact that the author narrates his own book. But he was wonderful, as promised. While he may not have had a wide range of vocals, his accents and his earnestness was such a pleasure to listen to. I would hope that in all his future novels, he chooses to narrate them all.
Listening length: 9 hours and 28 minutes (368 pages)
4.5 out of 5 stars