Saturday, February 2, 2013

Audiobook Review: American Dervish by Ayad Aktar

American Dervish (read by author, 9 hours, 28 minutes) is a coming of age novel layered with themes of religious faith and awakening, marital strife, racism and immigration. Despite the many themes, the author expertly weaves them together and wraps them in a story with a compelling young protagonist and the result is an immensely readable (in this case, listenable) book which I won't soon forget.

Hayat Shah is the son of Pakistani parents and lives with them in Wisconsin. His parents marriage is troubled and Hayat is often his mother's confidant as she shares her frustration with his father's dismissal of her - she is educated and gave up much to marry her husband which further deepens her resentment of the marriage which does not satisfy her. Hayat's father is a successful doctor who eschews the Muslim community of which everyone expects him to be a part.  He sees all religion as the root of many of the world's problems and his scientific mind questions much of what the faithful believe without question.  Hayat's mother wants to adhere more to her faith and culture than her husband - at one point, she forbids Hayat from attending a local carnival because it is sponsored by the Church. As a result of his parents' conflicted attitudes towards religion, Hayat is bereft of faith - he has not real familiarity with the Muslim religion.

When Hayat's mother's friend, Mina, arrives to live with them from Pakistan, she breathes life into the Shah home and an awakening begins. Mina is very religious and sets about teaching Hayat about the Muslim faith.  Hayat, enraptured by this introduction to his faith and Mina's beauty, soaks up these teachings eagerly. Mina doesn't get caught up in some of the more archane rules of the religion and teaches Hayat the fundamentals and emphasizes that "doing right" is what is most important.

Mina, meanwhile, has her own problems to deal with - she has left Pakistan with her young son after her husband divorced her through an emissary.  A man came to her bedside after she had given birth to her son and told her that her husband repeated Talaq three times thereby divorcing her. Mina is a modern, educated woman living in a family and country with outdated ideals and a view of women as secondary to men.  This conflict manifests itself in an eating disorder for Mina and an apparent inability for her to find happiness.  These patterns repeat themselves even when she comes to the United States.

The conflicting views of faith, culture and a woman's role in her family and society all come to a head in a variety of scenes throughout the book.  The scenes are powerful and nuanced  - there is no obvious right and wrong even though the issues are so divisive.  Hayat is the ideal protagonist for these conflicts because he looks at this issues with less nuance than the adults around him and thereby offers a very clear view of the issues.

As often happens with a book that blew me away, I am not sure that I am giving it justice - American Dervish  is beautifully written and deals with difficult issues without hitting you over the head with a point of view.  As an audiobook, it was a pleasure to listen to - read by the author, the characters' voices were distinct from each other and the accents were executed perfectly. I found myself standing inside the door after my walk home just listening and unable to stop.  This will definitely be in my Best of list for 2013!


  1. I really want to read this one. I love immigrant stories and this sounds fascinating since it's told from a young person's perspective.

  2. This is already on my audio wish list, but I'm definitely moving it up after reading your review!

  3. Sounds really good! I'll put it on my audio list.

  4. I'm always wary of authors narrating, but you're the second blogger I've seen rave about this audio, so I am going to have to listen, I think.

  5. I read this one last year but didn't love it too much. I did feel that it was nicely written and the religious element was handled really well. I usually don't like too much religion in my books but this one left me thinking a lot.