Navigating a new world
A central metaphor lies at the heart of this debut novel: a lioness, against all empirically derived expectation, guarding a young gazelle in the savanna for a period of days as tense as a knife's edge, protecting the fawn and yet holding it hostage. Our protagonist Jonas, the young war-afflicted refugee (or alternately: displaced person) of an unnamed conflict in an unnamed Muslim land, has come to the United States under the auspices of a humanitarian relief organization. American might destroys his family and village; American conscience gives him new opportunity.
Jonas subsequently struggles to find a foothold in his new home, with the secrets of those black days between the attack and his rescue haunting each waking moment and often carrying him into some deaf and speechless chasm. "Where does your mind go?" repeats his counselor Paul, who specializes in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, urging Jonas to shed light on these memories, to unburden his story. But in the end, as with each of the relationships in this novel, their dynamic slides from protector/protected into mutual threat as the truth of the past becomes menacingly clear.
Dau's prose is crisp and fluid and never wavers, but neither does it take many risks. His characters' stories are digestible even in their isolation and horror, his themes clear—for this Dau deserves praise as a scrivener and wordsmith. However, those characters never quite rise in relief from their journalistic counterparts (Dau spent a decade in post-war reconstruction and development and presumably drew from lived experience rather than headlines, though not with differentiable results), and the reader is left watching a shadow play instead of peering into the diorama the author seems to have intended.