31 Hours by Masha Hamilton

I was practically bullied into reading 31 Hours. So many people on Twitter were gushing about it and the folks at Unbridled Books were obviously excited about it. When I was able to get an ARC at Net Galley I figured I should just give in to the peer pressure.

Like most things in my life these days, it took me a while to get it together but I finally managed to read it. And I am glad I did as it was an enjoyable and interesting read. But I had a host of reactions from a variety of angles that led to an ambivalent conclusion.

So I will try to organize my thoughts by themes or perspectives.

First the basics. As you might have guessed from the title, the story takes place over 31 hours. The central character is Jonas Meitzner a 21-year old who has dropped out of college and who – lonely, emotional and confused – connected with Islamic terrorists in New York City.  The story relates the hours as he prepares to complete a suicide mission in the heart of the city.

Interwoven in with the story of Jonas are the lives of his friends, family and potential victims: his divorced parents, his high school best friend turned recent lover (and her family), and a homeless panhandler who makes his living on the subway system Jonas plans to attack.

My semi-organized thoughts below …

From a literary perspective Hamilton handles this very well. She skillfully draws these characters and their connection to Jonas. And as she weaves their stories together she builds the tension that comes from knowing what is at the end of the 31 hours (or is it?).

In a novel of only a couple hundred pages the characters were surprisingly well developed.  And the subplots helped the reader understand them and their perspective without becoming a distraction or undermining the tension.

If there is one complaint it is the ending. It felt a bit like a cop-out. I understand structurally why Hamilton likely chose such an ending but I don’t have to like it! It wasn’t a ruin the book type thing – just mildly annoying.

Another theme that runs through the book is one of faith or spirituality.  Of course, there is an Islamic element connected to the terrorism but Jonas practices a sort of spiritual smorgasbord where he embraces all religions and their insights (and even their practices). And Jonas’s mentor isn’t really motivated by religion either as it is a personal loss that sends him on his trajectory. So religion in a formal sense plays very little into the story.

Instead, what is woven into the story is a sort of spiritual longing. Every character comes to a point in which they feel they need to pray – a place where they need help seemingly beyond human abilities.

But when they come to this point none of them have a true spiritual foundation to ground these longings or provide the solace and guidance they need. Even Jonas tries a variety of liturgical/meditation techniques as if groping for something that feels real.

My obviously biased take on this as a Christian was that all of these people needed a faith that was more than platitudes and good feelings – more than “spirituality.” Jonas’s parents specifically rejected formal religion and yet their lives – and their son’s – seem to have suffered mightily from that choice. Having viewed faith with a political lens when the politics fall away they are left with nothing to hold onto.

Everyone wants to pray when tragedy strikes and yet none of them know how. I am pretty sure Hamilton didn’t mean it this way, but it struck me as a sad commentary on the thoroughgoing secularism of much of our culture (or a certain segment of our culture).

Which brings us to the political (or perhaps cultural) side of the novel. It didn’t bug me much while reading it, but the argument underlying the story is, to my mind, completely unconvincing.

Jonas strikes me as basically what those on what you might call the pacifist left wish home grown terrorists were like.  He is sensitive, tolerant and passionate. He feels deeply the suffering and violence in the world. He isn’t a radical fundamentalist bent on lashing out at the world in the name of his faith but an intelligent young person who has become convinced that only in violent acts can the change that is needed take place. Someone who is willing to sacrifice himself in the name of this change.

Hamilton avoids judgment for the most part but sort of shades Jonas as deeply confused – as too emotional and sensitive and thus captured by others for nefarious ends. And of course it is American violence – collateral damage in Afghanistan – that motivates his handler Masoud to embark on terrorism. The circle of violence argument lurks in the shadows.

As Jonas prepares for his mission he is the sensitive humanist enjoying food, thinking about the simplest of things, seeking spiritual insights from everything around him. But Hamilton seems to just put aside the fact that this sensitive and intelligent middle class young man is comfortable killing thousands of people in some misguided idea about changing the world.

By the end of the story the terrorist plot aspect just rings false. Jonas doesn’t feel like a terrorist and his connection to Islam seems tenuous at best. He has a family who cares about him, and a new found relationship with some he loves, but somehow he is going to blow up a bomb in the New York subway system? When the story ended the carefully and artfully constructed plot just seemed to collapse. (for a different take see the Washington Post review).

As the above has probably made clear, I have a hard time balancing my opinions about this book. On the one hand it is an interesting portrait of intertwined lives; a picture of how you can be involved in someone’s life but not really understand what they are thinking and feeling deep inside their own thoughts. It captures the incredible variety and complexity of human life (and there is, I think, also an underlying argument that this is what makes NYC so beautiful and interesting).

But the thread that brings the tension and the danger – the act of terrorism – is thin and incongruous enough that for me it couldn’t carry the weight. Which explains the ending perhaps.

Of course, I have strong opinions on religion, politics and most everything. So it seems safe to say your perspective on these issues will color and impact your reaction to 31 Hours.

If any of you have read it I would love to hear your take on any or all of the above.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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