THE GOOD SON by Michael Gruber

Book Quote:

“Sometimes when a false self cracks, we find there’s nothing inside. One of the sad things you learn in therapy is that there are some people who are beyond help, I mean direct help. They’re like black holes. They can suck the life out of anyone who tries to help them. So you need to take care of yourself, yes?”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett  (FEB 13, 2011)

The amazingly versatile Gruber has done it again, filling us armchair adventurers with knowledge as well as thrills and making the outlandish plausible.

This time he leaves behind themes of previous books – the diabolical intricacies of the art world (The Forgery of Venus), Shakespearean intrigue (The Book of Air and Shadows), Cuban Santeria (The Jimmy Paz trilogy) – to take on the intrigues of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Before you start groaning, let me say that those who find the whole muddle a hopeless quagmire will gain greater understanding and those who prefer their political thrillers in black and white should look elsewhere.

The narrator is Theo Laghari, a Pakistani-American U.S. Special Forces soldier with a back-story any boy would envy. Born to a prominent Lahore family, he enjoys a privileged upbringing, a bit marred by the storms his Polish-American former circus magician mother creates by her outrageous behavior, like going on the Haj disguised as a boy then writing a book about it.

A sudden tragedy ends this comfortable if insecure boyhood, inculcating the young Theo into the code of the Pashtuns (the tribe of his best friend and his grandfather’s best friend, Theo’s foster father) and spiriting him off to Afghanistan where he joins jihad against the Russians, training that well prepares him for his third incarnation in the U.S. military.

The present-day kidnapping of Theo’s mother, Sonia, along with the international group she has gathered together in Pakistan for a peace conference, kick starts the plot. Point of view alternates between Theo and Sonia, with detours to Cynthia Lam, an ambitious Vietnamese-American NSA officer whose facility for languages leads her to believe that intel concerning a Pakistani nuclear bomb plot is a hoax.

Sonia is appropriately larger than life, manipulating her unsophisticated captors with Sufi dream interpretations and Jungian psychology. She can discuss all aspects of jihad, Islam and hypocrisy, and arouses brutal anger as well as doubt.

Religious observance – her native Catholicism in the West and her adopted Islam in the East – grounds her, but she is a Sufi at heart. “They believe that everything written about God is in some sense wrong….He’s always a surprise and trying to chain Him to a human religion is folly.”

This is a talky novel, but the ideas are well put, thought provoking and go some distance toward making sense of Islamic and Pashtun honor, tradition and history, though no easy solution to the mess is on offer. The kidnap situation is highly unstable, including videotaped beheadings, and Theo’s rescue plans unfold in classic thriller style.

There are a number of twists and surprises at the end as well as some unanswered questions and at least one gratifying thread-tying development.

Gruber is a fine writer and researcher (who has in his past life been a chef, a marine biologist, a traveling hippie and rock group roadie, a civil servant at the highest Washington echelons, an environmental expert, a speechwriter and more) who puts his eclectic talents to excellent use in his wide-ranging fiction.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 91 readers
PUBLISHER: St. Martin’s Griffin; Reprint edition (February 15, 2011)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Michael Gruber
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February 13, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Afghanistan, India-Pakistan, Middle East, Thriller/Spy/Caper

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