This is an interesting book. It transcends genre. It’s a novel that resists pigeon holing. If I had to categorise it, I would classify it as a literary-political/contemporary thriller. But it’s so much more than this description implies.
Jihadi is told from the perspective of Thelonius Liddell, a disgraced American intelligence officer, who is now held in a CIA black site deemed a traitor. He is suspected of “going native”, converting to Islam and throwing his lot in with al Qaida. His former wife, Rebecca Firestone, is another intelligence officer, a psychologist and the woman who first recruited Thelonius to the intelligence services from the Army Special Forces, the Green Berets.
Much of the book takes the form of a memoir Thelonius has penned on parchment smuggled into his prison cell. Becky Firestone has got hold of this manuscript and her comments are interspersed with the text. But Becky has a brain tumour, which has made her erratic, paranoid, and has heightened her already ferocious patriotic fanaticism. Theolonius also suffers from pathological problems however, childhood trauma leading to him suffering hallucinations.
Both Becky and Theolonius prove to be unreliable narrators and for much of the novel the reader doesn’t know who to believe. There is Theolonius’ account of his last mission to the Islamic Republic (a fictional country the author has obviously based on a cross between Iraq and Afghanistan, post the US invasion of each). By his account, poor intelligence led to his involvement in a serious human rights abuse and after being arrested and detained, he met people who challenged his assumptions and led to his conversion. But he makes no mention of joining al Qaeda, just returning home disillusioned. Becky’s account on the other hand has her estranged husband seduced by terrorists, brainwashed, which leads to his involvement in a plot against his country.
There is another strand to the novel which takes place while Theolonius is in prison in the Islamic Republic. He falls in love with Fatima, an interpreter for his interrogators, a woman whose sister was killed in an American strike. Events are escalating after Theolonius’ arrest. A series of events have led to a new Iman appearing seemingly out of nowhere to radicalise the citizenry. He develops a huge following and this movement is calling for Theolonius to be executed.
Jihadi raises big issues and lets no one off the hook. It certainly asks big questions about US foreign policy and the war on terror. US strikes are made on poor intelligence and the Americans demonstrate callous disregard for the Muslim populace. But equally the Islamic extremists come off badly, the Iman secretly drinks scotch, his followers are ignorant hoodlums, using the power the movement has given them to bully women, intellectuals and everyone else who dares to stand up to them.
Yusuf Toropov has not written an easy book to read, both as far as content or structure is concerned. This is no action thriller, no Jason Bourne type story. It is rather a considered piece of literature, which while a slow burner, doesn’t pull its punches. It’s well worth a read and is a rewarding experience.
5 out or 5 stars