by Daniel J. Davies
Genre: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Print Length: 344 pages
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
An absorbing, complex drama of broken hearts and betrayal, with the clock ticking on a mass-murder target
The searing story in Daniel J. Davies’ new thriller, Bombmaker, is powered by an American interrogator who believes she’s uncovered evidence of a major terrorist plot to kill thousands of U.S. civilians.
When she befriends a prisoner to seek information from him, the focus shifts on this man, alternately called Georges and Fadi, and what his life was like before everything went wrong. It’s a satisfyingly long novel that progresses along surprising paths while placing focus on absorbing, mysterious characters.
In the mid-twentieth century, Fadi’s father, Mr. Subdallah, left Morocco and settled in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he married and raised children. Young Fadi went off to UMass and connected with a different kind of Islam there.
At college, racists target him, and he discovers that saying “I was born in Somerville” does nothing. A friend, Marcel, tells him: “As a child, you spend all of your time trying to sort the world out, to find how all the pieces fit and how the gears work. And there is a moment when the world stops spinning long enough for you to look in its belly.”
Fadi has a good, happy marriage, and he adores his small daughter. An understated genius, he invents a new elevator system. But in other ways, he’s unhappy. And he receives an offer of help.
Fadi brings his wife and daughter to Egypt. In 1989, he blows himself up. “No one has ever survived a suicide bombing,” he’s told. When he wakes, he’s lost appendages and body parts, and he’s got a broken jaw, ribs, pelvis, and a cracked spine. His memory and motivations are still in-tact.
This is where the nonchronological story opens.
Bombmaker intimately explores the family lives of Fadi as well as of his interrogator, Emma—or rather, it explores their dissatisfaction with what remains of their relationships. Emma, a divorcée and single parent, deliberately tries to perceive herself as itinerant so she can believe she’s “less nailed to the shitty circumstance she’d found herself in.”She’s lonely, and perhaps in another context (so she muses to herself) she could be convinced to commit a crime of desperation, except that there’s “nowhere for her to aim at.”
The novel doesn’t probe the terrorists’ theologies or political ideologies except for vague references. Fadi, for example, observes that oil companies deliberately play one Muslim sect off another. We don’t get to know what the sects are and why it makes a difference. This part of the story is impressionistic. Because the story doesn’t describe those positions in detail, neither does it offer them up for the reader to evaluate them. Nor does the novel directly address the meta-question of what fiction about suicide bombers intends to communicate—though a reader might investigate and contemplate that on their own.
Fadi is a complex character, and the novel generates increasing sympathy for him. He says, as a hypothetical, that he might not regret killing a person but might regret a situation “that would have me need to shoot him.” It’s not Fadi’s arduous physical recovery that makes him sympathetic, but his thoughtfulness as a person, including his affection for his wife and daughter. He watches them play together with blocks, “the same crinkled seriousness” in both of their foreheads. He’s someone who knows that life contains things “too gnarled to make sense of, but others are far too wonderful to make sense of.”
One skillful touch about this novel is the Boston setting, where there is “a Middle Eastern grocery, words in Arabic that probably meant spices, cigarettes, rugs, fabric…The old café of his father’s days…down Shawmut…[and] Waltham Street…”If you’ve lived in this city where, in winter, “the sky in late evening was a bulb on a dying generator” and there’s a frozen “wind jogging down the streets at night,” you’ll recognize it, and you’ll be there again.
Bombmaker has some tough-talking elements of crime fiction, as well as elaborately folded layers of mysteries, but most of all it’s effective storytelling of imperfect and tragic lives.
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