This book came to me as part of Powell’s Books Indiespensible book club—every six weeks they send members a new book, focusing on books from independent publishing houses. This was my first shipment. The Book of Jonas is not a book I would have picked out for myself but I’m glad it was sent to me.
I’m not going to lie: I’ve had a hell of a time getting this review to come together. I don’t know what it is about this book. I enjoyed it. I gave it to my boss to read and she enjoyed it. It’s certainly not a book I’m embarrassed to admit reading. But there’s just something that’s keeping me from getting into writing about it. Maybe there’s too much to say. Maybe I’d rather reread A Discovery of Witches. Maybe I’d rather write my Shadow of Night review, or read the book I started yesterday. Or maybe I’d rather clean the house. Yes, indeed, loyal readers. I think I would actually rather clean the house than write a review of this book. About ten minutes ago I finally told myself, “Just. Write. The. Fucking. Review.” And that’s what I’m doing. Enjoy.
In an unnamed Middle Eastern country, in the midst of an unnamed war, in an unmentioned year, a small town is bombed to rubble, and American ground troops proceed into the town and finish off the survivors. One fifteen-year-old boy named Younis survives and runs to a cave in the hills. He comes across an American soldier named Christopher who he says saved his life up there in the hills. Then an aid organization sends Younis to America, where he changes his name to Jonas and moves in with a typical family in Pittsburg. He finishes high school, goes to college on scholarship, develops a drinking problem, falls in love, gets kicked out of school, and then finds himself going back to the unnamed country. The writing in this book is simple and spare but somehow also full of subtleties and many layers of meaning. The truth of Younis’s last days in his home country is slowly revealed via flashbacks interspersed throughout the book. By the time of the final dénouement it hardly came as a surprise to me what had actually transpired between Younis and Christopher on that mountain cliff, but I hoped, like I hope every time I watch Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, that the ending wouldn’t be the way it was always going to end up being. I wanted Jonas to find a happy ending in the United States, but he ends up being far too damaged for any sort of happy ending, or at least not one that is found in the pages of his book. I hope that he finds it when he goes home.
One of the overarching themes of this book is memory—the tenuous nature of it, the subjectivity. It’s never clear whether or not Jonas truly doesn’t remember what happened in the mountain with Christopher or if he’s blocked it out or if he just doesn’t want to talk about it. A passage that stuck with me is below. This is when Jonas meets Rose, Christopher’s mother, an equally fascinating character, who I’m going to mostly ignore for the purposes of this review.
“The difficulty, he realizes, is inherent in the use of both words and memory. Their impression combines to make it nearly impossible for him to tell a true story. Even as he speaks, he is conscious of the fact that it wasn’t exactly as he describes. Had he really stopped beside the river that night, looked out into it and thought those things, or had he done that on a previous evening, and then, once again, superimposed one memory on top of another? Does he describe the river accurately, his frantic journey along it, or does he use a sort of verbal shorthand to convey to Rose the general picture, and allow her imagination to fill in the details? Is there any other way to tell her what happened?
“Because what Jonas wants, after all, is not simply to describe for Rose a mountain or a cave or his desperation. What he wants is for Rose to feel something, fear or pain or anger or heartache, even if only as a semblance of the emotion he detects within himself, even as he sits in her living room and tells this version of the story. He wants her to know, needs her to know, needs to place it all into context, needs to explain himself, wants her to understand.
“So he continues to talk, continues to describe for her how it was, or how he remembers it, or at least how he has convinced himself he remembers it. How scared he was, how angry, how desperate, how alone. And if it comes across as stilted or overwrought, if in his effort to commune with her, conjure for her his reality, he uses commonly held devices, if he describes once too often the strange crescent moon that lit up the world, or his shivering, or the accursed cave in which he was forced to spend the days of his youth, it is in the service of a greater purpose, and he can easily be forgiven (108-109).”
I think this passage is the crux of the entire book. If I wanted to spend even more time contemplating my review and even less time being a productive poster to this blog, I could reread it and think about it even more. I have found myself thinking things like this before—not so much now, but when I was younger. It occurred to me once when I was fairly young that I would never be able to remember every single experience of my life. This notion upset me. I wanted to write everything down as it happened so I would never forget. Obviously, this would take up so much time that I’d never actually do anything besides write stuff down. But I did consider it. When I watched a teenage girl two rows in front of me at a concert this week, I was struck that she was so busy taking pictures with her iPhone and posting them on Instagram she didn’t appear to be paying much attention to the fairly amazing concert going on around her. I guess this is the 2010’s equivalent of writing down everything we do every minute of every day. It made me sad for her in a way. I was also a bit sad for her unfortunate outfit (especially the pink cowboy hat), but I’ll save that for my fashionista blog that I’ll be premiering sometime soon. (Ha.)
This passage is from the diary that Christopher kept while he was in country (the unnamed one).
“And then I think I must have gasped, because standing there right next to the lioness was a little baby gazelle. He was tiny, and so weak he could barely stand, his legs all skinny and sort of quivering, whether from his own weight or fear or both. Every one in a while, the lioness would reach out with one of her huge paws, wrap it around the gazelle, pull him over, and lick his face, just like a dog licking your hand. It seemed like two competing instincts were fighting it out inside of her: her urge to hunt, and her urge to mother. In response, the gazelle would nuzzle up against the lioness’s side, maybe not entirely comfortable with the whole situation, but feeling, for a moment, safe.
What had happened, the biologist explained, was that two days previously, the pride’s big alpha male had killed both the baby gazelle’s mother and the lioness’s cub.
‘They’re heartbroken,’ she said. ‘They’ve adopted each other’ (124-125).”
Obviously this pairing isn’t going to end well, ultimately, but the author was kind enough to not describe it in detail. This passage in the journal pops up right before Jonas finally admits (to himself, because no one is acting as his confessor at that point in the book, not his therapist and not Rose) what happened in that cave between him and Christopher. You’d think that the American soldier would be the lion and Jonas would be the gazelle. But it’s simpler than that, and also more complex. Jonas is the gazelle who turns into the lion, and Christopher is the lion who turns into the gazelle. Jonas thinks that Christopher wanted him to do it, that the knife kept moving closer to him, but I don’t think that was the case. I think that Jonas wants to believe it so desperately he drinks himself into expulsion from college and ruins his relationship with his girlfriend and gets arrested, all in an attempt to force himself to believe that he was doing Christopher a favor.
So there’s my review, such as it is. I know it’s a bit disjointed. I knew I was never going to get it perfect and I don’t know that there is a way to do this book justice without a much deeper reading than I did, but maybe I’ll give it another shot one of these days. It’s certainly not a novel I’ll forget about anytime soon.