Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov. Published by Orenda Books.
When Karen Sullivan first sent me the manuscript of Yusuf Toropov’s urgent, experimental, thoughtful novel, I was intrigued. A few pages in, I found myself bamboozled. A few more and I was fascinated. Then awed by the writing. Then unsure what I was being encouraged to think. But finally I was sure that this was a book that Karen should consider for Orenda’s line-up of novels.
Now Jihadi: A Love Story has been published, I see that I am not alone in my complicated, perhaps even confused reaction to this novel. Early reviews have described faltering starts and cautious approaches to the book, even some questioning by reviewers: is this my type of book?
Yet universally, readers have found themselves drawn in. Drawn in by a book that so accurately skewers the West’s conflicted relationship with the Islamic countries, and the Muslim lives, it is involved with. Drawn in by Yusuf’s intelligent, sophisticated and absorbing writing, which perfectly reflects the intelligence, sophistication and magnetism of the novel’s subject matter. And drawn in by a story that at its heart is simply very, very human.
At the centre of Jihadi is Thelonius Lidell, an American CIA officer whose covert operation in the fictitious ‘Islamic State’ ends tragically. He narrates his side of the story while detained in a CIA facility. Parallel to this core plot is the narrative of Thelonius’s estranged wife, Becky, also a CIA officer. Ostensibly annotating Thelonius’s ‘text’, Becky provides an increasingly erratic alternative storyline, which questions and at time contradicts Thelonius’s version of events. There is a third thread running through the novel – that of the translator, Fatima, whose efforts to protect her family from the deepening crisis in her country is told by Thelonius.
I have accompanied this complex, challenging and thought-provoking novel for at least part of its journey – from my first reading to the published version, helping Karen edit the manuscript and even seeing the final typeset draft to bed with the printer. And each time I have read it, each time I have thought about a chapter, each time I have considered how a sentence could be improved, suggested an alteration or proposed something less or something more, my understanding of Yusuf’s powerful insights has deepened.
For the complexity of Jihadi is the complexity of the West’s relationship with the Islamic world, and the Islamic world’s relationship with the West. It is the complexity of truth; and of truth-telling. And, as the novel’s subtitle suggests, it is the complexity of love. Progressing through the patchwork of scenes, flashbacks and accounts, the reader can only guess at who among Thelonius, Becky, Fatima, and gun-ho US Marine, Mike Mazzoni, is describing accurately and authentically the events of the novel. In fact, the reader is left doubting the possibility that any one of them – indeed anyone at all – can tell the truth of an incident with complete, unbiased truth.
It is a very special book that manages to convey such uncertainty, yet at the same time is a success as a thrilling, gripping, emotionally rewarding tale. Jihadi is that success. Karen and I, from the very outset, were determined to preserve this – Yusuf’s vision – for the book. We were sure that its very difficulty was its strength. And were convinced the challenge it presents would be the reader’s reward.
Indeed, having read Jihadi again for this article, looking at my early notes and making new ones, I have been confronted by fresh insights, have appreciated new subtleties, and have been moved by its great, great humanity.
And so, with unapologetic partiality, I recommend that everyone – fans of thrillers, of love stories, and of literary experiment – read Jihadi. Because it is a book that conveys the predicament of the current moment; and hopefully helps us understand that moment a little better.