American writer John Wray’s fifth novel, a work of steady-handed literary chutzpah, is about a white Westerner who, beguiled by Islamic culture, travels across the world to protect a ‘Muslim state against its enemies’. For most of the early part of the 20th century, the common image of this sort of character was the dashing Orientalist: T E Lawrence, say, or, in fiction, Sandy Arbuthnot from John Buchan’s Greenmantle, an Old Etonian who ends up impersonating the titular Muslim prophet. After nearly two decades of the ‘War on Terror’, though, and with the enemies of fervent Muslims being no longer the impious Ottomans but mostly the godless West, those Westerners who join the fight against them are regarded as either diabolical turncoats or vulnerable dupes. One thinks of the hangdog figure of John Walker Lindh, ‘the American Taliban’, a twenty-year-old Muslim convert who was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, having fought against US forces and their allies.
It was while researching a proposed nonfiction book about Lindh in Afghanistan that Wray heard rumours of a Western girl, disguised as a boy, fighting with the Taliban at the same time. This elusive cross-dressing female extremist inspired Godsend. Like Lindh, Wray’s protagonist, eighteen-year-old Aden Sawyer, is a Californian from a broken home. Her father, a secular scholar of Islamic studies at Berkeley, has left her alcoholic mother for another woman. Aden addresses him as ‘Teacher’ in a series of mocking apostrophes scattered through the book’s third-person narrative; her decision to study at a madrasa in Pakistan is both inspired by his field of academic interest and a rebellion against what she believes to be his loose morals.
In part a careful account of faith in the modern world at its twisted extremes, and in part a suspenseful adventure story of which Buchan himself might have been proud, Godsend succeeds so brilliantly because it identifies what is familiar, even sympathetic, in Aden’s story without ignoring what ought to