Full disclosure: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
The author, Anissa M. Bouziane, has a French mother and a Moroccan father. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. This is an English version of a book originally written in French and published in Morocco. The protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to the author. Jeehan Naathar was born in the US to a French mother and a Moroccan father and though she lived in Morocco as a child, she decides to study in New York. Unfortunately, her supervisor dies before she is able to complete her Ph.D. on the Roman general Paulinus, whose legions were swallowed by the Moroccan desert.
Followed by misfortune, Jeehan starts her new job only to witness the collapse of the World Trade Centre from her office window. To make matters worse, her sister Rizzy, who had been living with Jeehan in New York, has just accepted a dangerous job posting in Sierra Leone. Left alone in New York, Jeehan makes a desperate attempt to salvage her life by setting off on a trip with her ex-boyfriend back to Morocco to write an article about people smugglers. But when her ex fails to show up at the airport in Casablanca, Jeehan is forced to face her fears on her own.
The novel is not really plot-oriented. It constantly jerks back between Jeehan’s present in Morocco and her past in New York, between the consequences and the source of the trauma.
When I originally picked up this book, I thought it would mostly be about the aftermath of 9/11 politically rather than personally. I could not be more mistaken. This novel reminded me of Brontë’s Villette, which I have been reading recently more than say of Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Dune Song is a study of depression, anxiety, even PTSD. Jeehan’s identity as a Muslim and an American shatters after the terrorist attack, and she finds herself constantly harassed by friends and acquaintances, “why do Muslims hate America so much?” Jeehan describes herself as made of stone, as talking of herself in past tense.
I enjoyed the second half of the novel far more than I did the first. Perhaps this is partially due to the things being described. It is usually a bit of a struggle to read about someone else’s inner darkness. The heroine is also very passive, which aligns exactly with the nature of her illness, but makes for little in terms of action.
Once Jeehan gets to the desert, things start happening – although I think this novel is still a far cry from a thriller, as it’s called on the blurb. It is much more akin to a parable, an allegory of healing: with its desert imagery, entwinement of physical and mental illness and the secret knowledge discovered during a journey to the desert.