Godsend by John Wray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018; 228 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Emotional and spiritual strengths are only the starting points of mind-bending character identity in John Wray’s Godsend: A Novel. Wray gives the reader the simple gift of Aden Sawyer, the daughter of an Islamic studies professor and his estranged and often inebriated wife. Aden has come to the decision, with her boyfriend Decker, that they will travel to a madras in Pakistan to saturate themselves in the teachings of Islam and the discipline that the teachings will bring to her life. Aden recognizes early, however, that her path will be extremely limited if she continues to Pakistan in a feminine form, and she transforms herself into a young boy named Suleyman. In the process of her transformation Aden crosses into the most devoted of Islamic followers, renouncing sex (much to Decker’s chagrin) and living in a physical modesty designed to preserve her new identity, while starting down a path of alienating any secularity in her past.
The year, however, is 2001, and Aden is drawn into military service on the borders of Pakistan to protect her beliefs, defending an ever-changing definition of faith. When she and her fellow believers cross over into the front lines of extremism, finding their devotion swerving into the same lanes as the Taliban, she is forced to not only give up on any semblance of her past but any semblance of her authentic self, siding with a prophet-like character in the group named Ziar. Her devotion to Islam muddles with her devotion to Ziar, and soon their identities break down in front of each other: his as leader, hers as a male warrior. In the space of the days leading up to their mutual revelation and in escalating combat, news comes over the rudimentary and biased radio broadcasts to the regiments that America has been attacked:
—A plane, they say. Two planes…some sort of conflagration.
No one spoke for a time. She felt them all watching…she stepped out of the circle and walked through the grass to where the captain sat hunched over his crackling apparatus…
—The American pays us a visit.
—I would ask you the reason, he said.—But on this day I imagine I can guess.
Aden is entirely successful in concealing her gender (excepting to the man with whom she falls in love), but she has no means with which to conceal her country of origin (even though her Arabic is flawless, she is still learning the other local languages), and that abandoned country is the one coming to find her and her fellow pilgrims after the attack. The story moves from one of sharp edge in her new identity as man to one in a citizenship she cannot renounce, and yet…in spite of her past and the risks she runs in her service and beliefs, she fearlessly questions every man she meets in the course of her journey. She confronts them in their faith, in their friendship, in their humanity, and she is fearless in a way that often generated a gasp in my reading (I think a couple of times I either held my breath or mentally shushed Aden); this reader was never sure if the audacity was more pronounced in the rebellion against her gender, or the questioning of her devotion. Aden questions, when for so many reasons, she cannot afford to do so.