Monday, February 10, 2014

Learning the Ways of the World

Moral ambiguity, shifting allegiances, murky motives, global politics, ruthless ideologues -- these are phrases that usually bring to mind the work of John Le Carre, not a work of Young Adult fiction. In this case, they are all evoked by the excellent YA debut by another former intelligence officer, "The Tyrant's Daughter" by J. C. Carlson.

The story opens as fifteen year old Laila, her mother, Jasmin, and six year old brother, Bastien, are trying to adapt to a new life near Washington, D.C. after fleeing their home country. They've gone from a life of cloistered luxury as members of the ruling family in an unnamed Middle Eastern state because of a coup that left the leader of the state, Laila's father, dead. In a suitably Shakespearean reference, the coup and assassination were engineered by Laila's uncle, who has now assumed power in his brother's stead. I can only assume the echoes of Hamlet are deliberate. For like Hamlet, Laila is forced to discover her own moral compass and act upon her beliefs and she is not sure who to trust. Should she believe the members of the opposition that begin to visit her mother in their new apartment? What does the CIA agent who managed to get them to the US want? Why is her mother talking to the uncle who assumed power when they were always at odds with one another in the past? What can a fifteen year old girl, the invisible child, do to make the world a better place? This may seem a bit cryptic, but I hope it will give you a flavor of how the book evolves.

And evolve it does. The opening sections are focused on Laila's introduction to a life without servants, where she goes to school for the first time, where girls and boys mix easily and teenage fashion exposes vast amounts of skin. Carlson does a masterful job of making Laila's sensory dislocation and bouts of panic viscerally realistic. Even better is the journey of discovery that Laila undertakes when a new friend refers to her father as a deposed tyrant. For Laila, her father was her father and all she saw of him was good. The vocabulary she was exposed to painted her father's actions in the best possible light, but now she discovers that her version of events is not what she thought.

The ending is appropriately ambiguous. Carlson follows Laila's story to a new inflection point and it is up to the reader to determine how the future will unfold. There is a very helpful essay by a scholar of middle eastern politics that will give this novel's readers some very insightful and thought provoking hints of different possibilities and I was glad to see it included.

There are a few minor missteps here -- the portraits of the American teens that Laila comes to know seem shallow, and more importantly, while the story is told in the present tense, Laila's voice feels older and reflective in a way that made her narration feel as if it was coming from an older person looking back rather than as a teenager experiencing these events as they unfold. But, as I said, these are minor quibbles and ultimately do not take away from this excellent debut novel.

I don't know if this is a book that every thrill seeking teen will find captivating, but I hope many do for it is a great introduction to the 'grey zone' that is central to political realities the world over. I would automatically refer any teen that finds the discomforting ambiguity of Laila's story to be sent off to read "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold", they're ready.

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