Terrorism did not begin with 9-11. Even before that horrifying day, people had blown themselves up in cafes and markets. But those were foreign tragedies, they happened in far-flung places, and did not seize our attention like 9-11. The story of September 11th is our own spectacular narrative, and several American novelists have made their bids to respond, among them Masha Hamilton, who creates a home-grown bomber in her latest novel, 31 Hours.
This is the story of Jonas, a 21-year-old American boy who has trained in Pakistan and converted to Islam. As the novel opens, we find him hiding in a safe-house apartment in New York City and preparing for the violent act his handlers have instructed him to take in exactly 31 hours. We are led into his increasingly strange world, and his terrifying isolation from the people he loves: “He punched the number . . . and heard nothing. He tried the speed dial for his mother, and then for his father, and then, staving off desperation, he tried to call a couple of friends….” Jonas realizes that his handlers have disconnected the phone.
31 Hours is also the story of Jonas’ mother, Carol. We find her in another part of the city, awake and knowing intuitively that something is terribly wrong with her son — she hasn’t seen or heard from him in weeks. “She massaged her scalp for a moment and then squeezed her eyes closed, trying to picture Jonas in his Greenwich Village apartment. She failed. She tried to envision him in a lecture hall at NYU. That didn’t work, either. A hospital bed in Midtown? Sunk to the bottom of the East River?”
Carol calls on her ex-husband Jake, and their search for clues to Jonas’ disappearance leads them to the vibrant characters who inhabit the novel. There’s Vic, Jonas’s dancer girlfriend; Mara, Vic’s little sister; and Sonny Hirt, a professional panhandler who works the New York subway with style. Through these personalities, we gain fascinating insight into New York life. Sonny, for example, creases his metro card to get into the system for free, and Jonas’ father reads Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” posts for fun.
Hamilton’s plot is fast and suspenseful, but the novel really hinges on the relationship between mother and son. Jonas is a loner whose “ability to spot the wizard behind the curtain had for years plunged [him] into periodic depressions.” Perhaps, like many young men, he thinks about his mother much less than she thinks about him. While he can block Carol from his consciousness, she worries about him constantly, remembers her baby boy and longs for him. And perhaps like many mothers, Carol hopes her sweet son, her “wild-haired precious” still lives, now buried inside hulking muscle and bone: “When he was tiny, on a frenzied night like this, he would have snuggled with her in this very bed, bare toes pressing against her leg. Now he extended over six feet, and though he hugged, he didn’t snuggle. God, where had those days gone?”
Thus Hamilton explores the alchemy of raising a child, especially a boy. No one can predict the future, and that sweet baby and cute toddler are mere decoys for the creature to come. This is story of mother as unwitting Dr. Frankenstein. Carol has no idea what is going on in Jonas’ world. So, we flip back and forth between Carol’s world of loving mother and son, and the bizarre universe in which Jonas shaves his body, prays, and prepares himself for his violent act, an act that simultaneously abnegates and glorifies the self. We learn all the queasy details of Jonas’ martyr video, and as Jonas bares himself to the camera, we see his vulnerability, his childishness that Carol so misses.
On her website, Hamilton describes Jonas as “a young man struggling toward maturation, idealistic but unrealistic, contemplating an act of violence he doesn’t truly comprehend.” In the novel, we also get intimations of his dangerous innocence, the kind that can lead a young man to turn his back on humanity. And, when Jonas observes his fellow New Yorkers and passes chilling, virginal judgment upon them, Hamilton shows us a boy whose unmooring has begun. We are left to wonder if he would pass the same judgment on his mother, who so desperately searches for him.
Masha Hamilton is a novelist, journalist, and humanitarian as well as a mother of three. She has founded two literary projects, The Camel Book Drive, which supplies books (on camels!) in Kenya, and the Afghan Woman’s Writer’s Project. She has also collected stories about Afghanistan’s women and other people who are outside the rings of power. Thus, when Hamilton writes about Jonas’ visit to a Pakistan border town, she speaks with the authority of a witness and someone who has felt cultural alienation. Hamilton describes a street lined with gun shops, “where gunsmiths dressed in shawar cakmeez worked with primitive tools….It felt like an adventure then, and [Jonas] even forgot why he had come or how foreign he must look until he noticed the men lounging on rope beds who watched him with slitted eyes and murmured among themselves as he and Ghaliji passed.”
Hamilton says that writing 31 Hours opened old wounds. When she was fourteen, a school friend was murdered, and this event haunted Hamilton into adulthood. As a journalist, she later covered a story about a mother whose foster son was charged with multiple murders. Exploring this bond between mother and son, Hamilton says, was a revelation. She surprised herself by crying the day the murderer was executed. In 31 Hours, Hamilton examines these complex questions. “Does being able to see both sides of a story make you empathetic — or perverse?” she asks. “Does it make you human — or inhumane?” Does a mother’s love follow her son down into the subway? Is she with him when he sets the bombs off? With empathy and verve, Hamilton explores this dangerous psychic territory, places most mothers would rather not go.