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Book of the Month – They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears

Our favorite pick for November 2019.

Johannes Anyuru
Johannes Anyuru. Photograph by Henrik Montgomery Via Göteborgs Posten

Our favorite pick for November 2019.

They Will Drown In Their Mothers' Tears

They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears
Johannes Anyuru
Two Line Press (2019)

You won’t be able to say this book is boring. Johannes Anyuru, Swedish author and winner of the August Prize (for this book in fact), is thriller master, and the first page of this fast-paced dystopian novel puts you right in the middle of the action—a terrorist attack on a comic book store, which is holding an event featuring an artist known for lampooning Muhammad. Sound familiar? 

The en media res approach hooks you immediately, and keeps you glued to the page as you’re introduced to the narrator and her perspective of the attack, which quickly goes horribly wrong. Despite the fact that the reader immediately knows the protagonist is a terrorist, she inspires pity and love as we see the brutality through her eyes and realize how young she is. It is, in fact, her humanity and vulnerability that are the most engaging elements of the work, and which become the most gut-wrenching, fascinating pieces of the story.  

Because the novel is written in first person, we realize almost immediately that the narrator is unreliable, her thoughts and emotions about the past deeply fragmented even as she tries to grapple with the violence playing out in front of her, by her own hand. She has no memory of arriving at this moment, what her name is, why she apparently married another of the terrorists days before. When the attack doesn’t go according to plan, she is taken to a psychiatric hospital where she eventually invites a reporter to come and hear her side of the story. Her memories are a formidable snarl, but as she begins to unravel them for her listener, we realize quickly that her history is much more complicated than we could have imagined. 

Before the reporter arrives, she begins writing an account of her story as best as she can remember, and these journal portions are interspersed with the reporter’s own narrative. What she claims to have experienced is impossible; she believes herself to be in the wrong reality, living under the wrong name and identity. The reporter tells her that in the present day her records show that she was radicalized, captured and tortured by American troops, then eventually released and turned terrorist.  

She contradicts him, saying that she and her family lived in Sweden at a time when someone else committed the terrorist attack that she has been accused of, which caused the Swedish government to corral any professed Muslims into ghettos, leaving them to die or be experimented on. She claims their methods of torture are what brought her into his reality.  

The reporter, who is also Muslim, doesn’t believe her at first, but is drawn nonetheless to her passion, unable to reconcile what she genuinely believes and what he has proof of. His own experiences as a Muslim living in a secular country slowly prompt a change in his perspective, and he begins to obsess over her disparate narratives in an attempt to discover the truth. As he delves into her life, their experiences intertwine and create a new reality altogether, pushing him to confront the prejudice rampant in the culture around him and his place in a suspicious and, at times, xenophobic culture.

Though his perspective is poignant and key to the ending, what is most stunning about this book is the girl’s story of her time in the Rabbit Yard, the ghetto she and her father were assigned to after her mother was killed by a vigilante white nationalist group. Her Muslim identity, held quite loosely though it dictates her life, targeted her for retribution from a fearful and vindictive Swedish population out for blood after the terrorist attack, and her recounting of the horrors of living under rabid, intentional persecution echo our times. Perhaps too loudly—Anyuru used reporting and testimonies from Abu Ghraib as background for this work, and reality doesn’t stray far from fiction.  

The narrator struggles to reconcile her memories with reality until the end, insisting that she came to stop the terrorist attack she is accused of orchestrating so that the ghettos would not be formed in Sweden. Her stories, whichever you choose to believe, are a plea to reason and compassion, a narrative that insists again and again that what we have most to fear is not the Muslim community or even terrorism, but the animosity and fear that breed such hatred and violence in the first place, the hatred which makes the victors as cruel as the victims.  

It is a harrowing read, one that uses its dystopian elements to illustrate the full consequences that rampant prejudice can have on a populace, and the existential consequences of treating human beings like animals. I don’t know of another book that handles radicalization so thoroughly and believably, and Anyuru forces the reader into the midst of that moral dilemma along with the characters as he keeps our gaze on their pain and confusion, not allowing us to look away until the full drama plays out. Though it literally made me sick to my stomach, They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears has far and away earned its accolades and its title, and I’ll be looking to put more of Anyuru’s works on my shelves. 

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Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.