The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau (Blue Rider Press; 272 pages; $24.95).
War is hell. If you do not believe me, just ask Robert Bales, the US Army officer accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians, including women and children. Bales suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition many servicemen and women face. Although PTSD does not excuse Bales’ actions, it does help explain them. Experiences on a battlefield alter a person. How could they not? After a conflict is long over, a soldier’s symptoms of PTSD remain and may worsen over time.
PTSD does not affect only those in the Armed Forces. The condition also affects family members whose loved ones died in combat and even people in the countries we are fighting. In his sparse yet elegant debut The Book of Jonas, Stephen Dau effectively gives us stories of all three grappling with the horrors of war.
Dau is at his best when he shows us the indelible damages war inflicts on us all. The wounds left over from combat are not just physical, not just injuries, body counts, and ravaged landscapes. The Book of Jonas zeroes in on the emotional, mental, and psychological scars that time will probably never heal.
That sentiment best describes Dau’s main character, Jonas, a troubled young man touched by unspeakable tragedy. The US Army destroys Jonas’ entire village; he is the lone survivor. A war orphan, Jonas comes to America to live with an American family. While on the plane to America, Jonas is met with his first challenge: what to call himself.
Jonas is not his real name. His given name is Younis. On the plane, he changes it to Jonas; thus, he renames himself. Instead of this being empowering for him, I see it as an example of just how utterly lost Jonas feels. He is now disengaged from everything he ever knew and disconnected from his country. His detachment continues.
In school, classmates ridicule and even bully Jonas. To them, Jonas is just too different. His accent, his ways, and his place of birth make him stand out in all the wrong ways. Jonas is Othered. When the bullying of his classmates turns violent, Jonas fights back. His schoolmates do not get in trouble for fighting, but Jonas does. The school forces him to see a psychologist.
Jonas’ visits to the psychologist, Paul, are a real boon to readers. We learn more about Jonas as a result. Paul gradually gets Jonas to tell us the full story behind the attack on his village and its aftermath. However, Jonas is an unreliable narrator. This makes him all the more interesting to me, but, as a reader, one must be careful not to take what Jonas says as truth. His memories of the past contradict what really happened. Jonas is clearly suffering from PTSD.
One thing is certain: after his village is bombed, Jonas retreats to a cave. He is badly injured. He almost dies. An American soldier saves Jonas. The kicker is that the soldier then vanishes.
Jonas learns the soldier, Christopher, is missing from a newspaper article. Paul suggests it may help Jonas if he meets Rose, Christopher’s mother. So Jonas travels to her home.
Rose is herself suffering. She wants closure. Her son is missing and no one, not the government, not the Army, and not those he served with, know what happened to him. Rose only wants his body so she can mourn him. Dau does not use Rose enough. Her character shows us what survivors go through day after day as they struggle with the simple act of living. Rose is desperate for answers from Jonas, especially after Jonas tells her the story of how her son saved him. Jonas swears he does not know anything. But is this unreliable narrator telling the truth? What really happened to Christopher?
The character of Christopher is almost chilling. He and his unit have been in countless battles against insurgents, and they have paid the price. Dau uses Christopher’s diary entries to illuminate his intensity and his obsession with battle. Christopher’s account is hurried and disjointed. Christopher and his unit seem hungry with power; indeed, they are almost drunk with it. Their bombing of Jonas’ village is an act of revenge. Dau makes it clear Christopher has PTSD. As I read his diary entries, I feel as if Christopher will ultimately commit suicide in the cave with Jonas. Yet Christopher’s fate is one even I did not see coming. I applaud Dau for superbly crafting an ending no one can see coming.
Dau’s portrayal of war is brutal. It is almost as if warfare is as inherent in our genes as eyecolor and diabetes. Early in the novel, Christopher describes a scene in Africa that forever stays with him. A lioness had lost her cub and was bereft. She was in a pack that had recently killed a gazelle. A baby gazelle was then left alone, also filled with a sense of loss. The lioness and the gazelle seemed to take comfort in the other’s presence. The lioness mothered the gazelle. Heartbroken, they adopted each other. But it had been three days since she had last eaten. The pack was hungry, too. Animals get hungry and their survival skills kick in. You can guess what happens.
The lioness and the gazelle adorn the cover of Dau’s book. The pictures are more than just ornamental. The lioness and the gazelle symbolize Christopher and Jonas. They may, in fact, be a wider metaphor for warring countries. The account foreshadows events that occur later on in the novel and strengthens his narrative in ways you have to read to appreciate.
In his timely, unfliching debut, Dau gives me much to ponder as he explores the high cost of war to both sides. I recommend The Book of Jonas for those who enjoy Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn), Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke), and Megan K. Stack (Every Man in This Village is a Liar). I come away with the knowledge that we are not doing enough to help those suffering from PTSD. War does not only ravage landscapes; conflict also destroys people. We should remember that.