three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
By: 
Ayad Akhtar
user_rating: 
0

A-American-DervishAyad Akhtar, a Pakistani-American screenwriter and playwright, cowrote and starred in the indie thriller The War Within, which debuted at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. American Dervish is his first novel.

The Story: In 1981, 11-year-old Hayat Shah, the sensitive only child of wealthy, secular Pakistani-American parents, finds his life turned upside down by his mother's freethinking but devout friend, Mina Ali, who flees Pakistan with her four-year-old son Imran and moves into the Shahs' suburban Milwaukee home. Mina captivates Hayat with Sufi bedtime stories, and she soon begins instructing the boy in the Koran. Hayat's heady spiritual awakening, however, conflicts with nascent sexual stirrings. When Mina falls in love with a Jewish doctor, tensions rise in the small immigrant community, and, in an attempt to prevent Mina's impending marriage, Hayat sets events in motion that could devastate them all.
Little, Brown and Company. 368 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780316183314

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars"It's a compulsively readable novel, one I consumed in big gulps, eager to see where this gifted storyteller would take his appealing cast of characters. ... Akhtar, an award-winning playwright, brings into sharp relief the conflicts between East and West, and at the same time dramatizes universal elements of our flawed humanity." Kathryn Lang

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars"For all the rage and satire contained within its pages, Mr. Akhtar's novel is far from an antireligious screed in the tradition of Christopher Hitchens. It is instead admirably restrained, deeply appreciative of some aspects of Islam and ultimately far more interested in raising provocative questions than in definitively answering them." Adam Langer

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars"Whether you are Muslim, Jewish or Christian, this coming-of-age tale hits home. ... Intelligently written, emotionally charged, American Dervish is a loss-of-innocence tale that will leave readers pondering the state of their own faith." Steve Bennett

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars"The novel relies too much on plot--on action--to drive the story. ... That said, Akhtar's characters are certainly built to carry the weight of melodrama. Hayat, Mina, Naveed, Muneer and Nathan are nuanced beings, as surprising, irritating and endearing as people in the real world." Maggie Galehouse

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars"The plot gallops along, but in its need for speed the prose occasionally sacrifices precision. ... But without the pleasurable bagginess of its 19th-century forebears, American Dervish is free to accelerate toward its climactic confrontation." Matt Burgess

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars"American Dervish so richly depicts a wide variety of humanly inconsistent and fallible characters that it feels reductive to call it a Muslim American novel, yet it is impossible to call it anything else because it is steeped in the tenets of Islam and a fierce debate over their deepest meaning. ... The final 100 pages are tainted with melodrama, but Akhtar by and large makes the story work." Wendy Smith

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 2.5 of 5 Stars"The resulting conflicts make for some compelling scenes in which abstract ideas--alternative versions of Islam, the role of women and the meaning of tolerance--play out through the characters who embody them. But like many plot-driven Hollywood films, Dervish simultaneously sacrifices depth, turning its characters into cartoons who flit from crisis to crisis, without ever developing an inner life." Mike Fischer

Critical Summary

Akhtar's poignant, entertaining debut is an insider's account of what it means to grow up in a traditional culture trying to steel itself against the permissiveness and liberalism of its adopted land. Akhtar's melodramatic plot--a result, speculated the critics, of his screenwriting experience--is both the novel's greatest strength and its main weakness. While the narrative gallops along at a breathless, breakneck speed, its velocity leaves depth and introspection at the curb. While the Houston Chronicle praised Akhtar's genuine characters, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel considered them "cartoons" with no inner life. Though some critics longed for a more leisurely and lyrical novel, "no matter how theatrical the story becomes, readers will stay until the end of the show" (Houston Chronicle).