American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Thursday, February 16, 2012


American Dervish
Almost from the moment Imran could speak, he'd been asking about his father. And, sensing there was more to know than the vague, unsettling outline of a story his mother told him - that there had once been a man who had been his father, but then he'd left, and so was his father no more - Imran turned to others for answers. Indeed, it wasn't long before each new male visitor to the house would find himself besieged by the young boy; Imran would climb up a leg and into the man's embrace. "Are you my dad?" he would ask.

For a long time, young Hayat Shah has heard the same stories from his mother - about her best friend Mina and her mischievous disposition. When newly divorced Mina arrives at their home in the US to protect her son from her ex-husband back in Pakistan, Hayat is entirely captivated by her. From Mina he learns to read and worship the Quran, and is inspired to try and become a hafiz (someone who has memorized the entire Quran). But when Mina falls in love with a Jewish man, Hayat begins to feel betrayed and angry. Around the same time, Hayat begins to hear anti-Semitic stuff that he believes to be true, thus adding to his resentment, leading him to do things that will destroy a lot of lives.

I guess that synopsis kind of sounds intriguing. (I hope so - I struggled to write it.) The book however was just so-so. What I struggled most with was the amount of religious matter in it. I see the point to it - without all that content in the book, I don't think I would be convinced as to how much Hayat fell under the "spell". (I say 'spell' because he was believing what he wanted to believe and there was no one to correct him. At such an impressionable age, that just spells disaster to me.) The stuff did make me uncomfortable and sometimes angry (that's just me), but then I remembered that the person thinking these thoughts was a really young kid. I appreciated the author for not censoring anything while writing this book - that made the book all the more atmospheric.

Having never read a book like this - on one of the ways how religious fervor is born, I liked the insight I got into Hayat's mind. He had good people on his side to help him out, though I felt it's mostly that destructive thing he does which changes him. I did however find it strange that his parents never bothered to tell him that whatever crazy stuff he heard were wrong. For a person all insistent on an atheistic life and hating any form of incendiary talks, Hayat's father felt like a weak character to me. He seemed to more fulfill the role of the dissenting voice in the book than a responsible father who should worry about what his son listens to. Unfortunately, there are lot of fathers like him, so I can't really say that this is the fault of the book. It's just the way a lot of the families are - somehow the nastier aspects of religion, politics and sex education are allowed to collect dust in the attic.

The parts of the book I enjoyed have to do mostly with Mina's four-year old son, Imran. Growing up without a father was tough for him, making him look at any Pakistani man and ask if he was his father. When he is introduced to Mina's lover, Nathan, Imran isn't at all happy about it and sulks most of the time. Imran instead looks at Hayat's father as his own father and this drives Hayat jealous. I loved the dynamics between these two boys, who were like brothers sometimes, and other times, Hayat's jealousy would make him do desperate things.

American Dervish is a really fast read, and although it was challenging for me, it was also engrossing at some level. I was mostly curious as to how Hayat gets transformed (which we know right from the start). And although there were times when it felt hard to look at Hayat as a child and instead as a very troubled person, the author did remind me of that many times. The religious aspect of the book is probably its strongest suit (never thought I would say that), but I felt that the plot was a bit unstable, and a couple of the characters, especially Nathan, felt too comical to me. There are however a lot of stereotypes in the book - most of the "not good" guys are painted as too orthodox or too fanatical. While that gets the point across, I doubt it does much for the Pakistani culture. Overall, the book was just alright. Pity because I love the cover too much.


I received this book for free for review from the publisher.


22 comments:

JoV said...

It's a shame that you didn't like that much. I don't like to read stereotypical character with predictable traits, so I understand where you are coming from. Thanks for the review and I agree that the cover is beautiful!

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

The reviews for this book are really mixed.  I guess I need to read it to see where I fall on the spectrum.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have to say I also loved the cover more than the book!  :--)

zibilee said...

I need to read this one soon, as it's been all over the blogs and there have been some really strong opinions about it. It sounds like one that is going to really make me think, as it did you, and I am eager to get started with it. Very nice review today. I appreciated your honesty.

Ti said...

I have a copy of this one, but I am not drawn to it at all. And with your mention of religion, I may never pick it up. 

Helen Murdoch said...

I was intrigued at first by this book at first, but I think I am going to give it a miss. It sounds a bit frustrating

softdrink said...

I was all excited when I first read about this book, but you're the second person to say it's just so-so, so I'll be skipping it.

Jean said...

So much hype about this one. And it was just okay for me. Disappointing.

Bkclubcare said...

I might have to get this because it has a bicycle on the cover.  Someone pointed out to me that I had two in a Mailbox post and now I'm seeing them everywhere.

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome! I didn't like it that the characters were a little too flat for my taste. I did like Hayat's character a little, but eventually, he also didn't show any sign of actually having learnt from his mistake.

Athira / Aths said...

If you choose to read it, I will be looking forward to hearing what you thought. I'm also fascinated by the different camps for this book.

Athira / Aths said...

I read your review, and we did end up drawing the same conclusions. The cover is probably the best part of this book.

Athira / Aths said...

Thank you so much! I will be looking forward to what you think!

Athira / Aths said...

I doubt I would have picked it up either had I known it had religion in it. Still, I may have recommended it, if the characters were better fleshed out.

Athira / Aths said...

Yeah, it definitely frustrated me. While I enjoyed parts of it, there were parts that just didn't do it for me.

Athira / Aths said...

I was so excited too initially. Not fun to realize the book you've waited months to read is providing no spark.

Athira / Aths said...

I agree. It just fell flat and was disappointing. 

Athira / Aths said...

LOL! That is a good reason to read it. Though, I'm trying to remember whether there are bicycles in the story. I remember reading a book in which a boy is riding bicycles and fixing one - but was it this one or some other? The problem with reading too much! 

Lisa said...

The other reviews I've read on this one have also been mixed. I think I'm on the fence as to whether or not to give it a try. It does sound interesting. 

Vasilly said...

I'm grateful for your review because there was so much hype behind this book. I'm still going to read it but I'll wait until a later date.

Bibliophilebythesea said...

I am happy you enjoyed this. It's been on my wish list since I first heard of it. Hoping my library might get the audio version?? Great review.

Ryan St.Onge said...

I quite liked this book. I thought it covered an aspect of American life not often discussed: Growing up Muslim and how families struggle with Old World vs. New World mentalities. Great review.