Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: "American Dervish" by Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar's first novel, American Dervish, is an interesting and somewhat unswerving look at a Pakistani family living in America, and the struggles that occur when devotion to their Muslim religion gets in the way.

Hayat Shah is a good-natured preteen growing up in the 1980s. One day, his mother's childhood friend, Mina, comes from Pakistan to live with the Shahs along with her young son, to prevent her ex-husband from taking custody of her child. Hayat becomes immediately infatuated with Mina, and she begins teaching him to read the Quran and understand the meaning behind their religion. Meanwhile, Hayat watches his parents' marriage struggle, with his father's drinking and infidelity, and his mother's constant nagging. One day, Mina begins a relationship with Dr. Nathan Wolfsohn, Hayat's father's partner and best friend. The fact that Nathan is Jewish, a religion that some devout Muslims despise, is not lost on the increasingly observant Hayat, and one day, his actions set a change of events in motion that have ripples for his entire family, as well as Mina and Nathan.

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. Akhtar is a very good writer and he certainly made Hayat's story a compelling one. I found many of the characters very unsympathetic—however realistic a portrayal of Akhtar's life this may be—and I don't particularly enjoy books whose plot turns on the actions of a jealous, angry child. (I'm reminded of Ian McEwan's Atonement in that way, another book I disliked because of this same issue.) The look at the Muslim religion was very interesting as I know very little about it, but beyond that, I found that the story frustrated me more than moved me.

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