American Dervish begins in the early 1980s and is told from the point of view of 10 year old Hayat Shah. His mother’s best friend is just about to move to Milwaukee from Pakistan, to live with Hayat’s family while she recovers from a disastrous marriage. Mina is beautiful and smart and brings laughter to the often somber Shah household. Hayat is enchanted. Mina is also a devout Muslim and Hayat is only too glad to let her teach him about his Islamic heritage and their holy book, the Quran. What no one is prepared for is where Hayat’s devotion to Mina and the Quran will lead.
American Dervish is an engrossing novel with a sympathetic narrator in Hayat. The other characters are vivid, even the secondary ones. I thought Akhtar did a wonderful job of giving the reader just the kind of details about a character that makes them spring to life on the page. There are big themes in this book, but they are not forced upon the story, rather the action illuminates the issues.
As I read a book I often ask myself who I would recommend it to. This book brought to mind readers of The Kite Runner. Both books revolve around a boy who doesn’t fully understand the political undercurrents in his community and because of this he makes a choice he is haunted by for the rest of his life.
Unlike The Kite Runner, this novel doesn’t take place in a faraway land but in this country. Yet, like that novel, the culture it portrays was fascinating to me because it’s one with which I am unfamiliar.
Ayad Akhtar is an American of Pakistani heritage, raised in Milwaukee. He has written several screenplays, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit award for co-writing the screenplay for The War Within. American Dervish is his first novel. I suspect it won’t be his last.