American Dervish

Photo: Lara Robby/Studio D

7 of 9
American Dervish
368 pages; Little, Brown and Company
Loss of innocence—sexual, of course, but also cultural and religious—is the subject of Ayad Akhtar's poignant American Dervish, set in a Muslim-American community in the early 1980s. Hayat Shah is the only child of a lapsed fundamentalist father who cavorts with Western women and a devout mother who suffers—but stays. Then Mina Ali, the mother's "dazzling" Pakistan-born best friend, joins the dour household. Suddenly, 10-year-old Hayat comes alive; he adores Mina, studies with her, confides in her, dreams of her. But when his dear "auntie" begins a romantic relationship with a Western man—a Jew, no less—Hayat is devastated. ("She was separate from me, and I needed to close that gap, to seize her somehow, to make her my own. I didn't understand it.") Conflating his personal feelings with his burgeoning commitment to Islam, he sets in motion a series of events that he theorizes will win Mina back but instead prove heartbreakingly futile and haunt him for years. With characters full of contradictions and complexity, this debut novel is refreshing for its lack of the political and religious hand-wringing so common in the post–9/11 world. But it's also resonantly familiar in its depiction of youthful obsession and the desire to belong.
— Sara Nelson