Theo Bailey, the son
Farid Laghari, the father, son of B.B. Laghari, a judge and tribal leader in Lahore, a Pashtun
Sonia Bailey, the mother who is Polish by ancestry and American by birth, but who, upon marrying Farid, is accepted into the family household and becomes a Pashtun as well.
Cynthia Lam, the language expert working at NSA
The good son, Theo Bailey, is in the army but exactly which branch is hard to say. He goes into places like Afghanistan and Pakistan because he speaks the languages, grew up there, in fact, before his family moved to the US, where his father teaches in Washington DC, and his mother is a writer. The book opens with Theo getting a call from his mother, Sonia, asking him to tell his father that she is leaving the country. This sounds benign but the reason she is asking Theo to relate the news is that she is going back to Lahore, and there is a fatwah out against her which means that going is extremely dangerous. Theo is upset and tries to talk his mother out of going, but it’s useless to try to change her mind and she boards the plane despite his protests. Sonia was born in the US to immigrants from Poland. They work in the traveling circus where Sonia learns to ride the elephants and horses and becomes skilled in handling a deck of cards. All is well until Sonia’s mother is killed by tiger, her father falls ill and finally, the owners of the circus sell out without paying the troupe. Sonia uses her skills as a card dealer to throw blackjack games in Atlantic City to her handler’s favor, until he gets too greedy and ends up being beaten after a winning night. Sonia grabs a suitcase full of cash and heads for NYC, where she meets Theo’s father, Farid, who falls in love, marries her and takes her back to Lahore to the house of his father, where she becomes Muslim, bears Theo and two daughters, and a few years later, goes on her scandalous trips around the Muslim world disguised as a boy. No one would’ve known except that she writes a book about it which is published in the States and becomes very popular. Meanwhile, back in Lahore, the head of the clan, BB Laghari is killed in a bomb attack on his automobile and Theo’s two younger sisters are killed as well. For a long time Sonia believes that Theo was killed as well, but as it turns out a boy from the neighborhood had jumped up on the bumper as it drove by and it was this boy who was killed in the explosion and fire, and not Theo. Sonia has a nervous breakdown and goes into therapy in Zurich, where she becomes a psychiatric therapist herself.
Going back to Pakistan becomes necessary when Sonia has helped to organize a peace talk that includes a wealthy American, a missionary couple, a German, a couple of Muslims, who all meet at a hotel, but then travel to one of the houses belonging to her husband, Farid, which is in Taliban controlled territory. At first everything is peaceful but before they can reach the house their bus is attacked and all of them are taken hostage by rebel forces. They are told that each time the United States attacks and kills a Muslim in Pashtun territory, one of them will be beheaded as revenge. Sonia begins interpreting dreams for some of the captors and is beaten in public on her back and the soles of her feet until the women of the village shame the me into stopping. To punish her further she must choose whoever will be the next victim and does so by having each one draw cards.
There are other aspects to the story, another adopted son, Wazir, who grew up with Theo but who disappeared during the fighting in Afghanistan. And in order to get the US to go in and rescue this group of hostages, Theo, his father and his sister-in-law in Lahore begin communicating on cell phones about nuclear weapons materiel going missing in the area. They are betting on the NSA eaves dropping on their conversation and the calls are quickly picked up by an ambitious analyst named Cynthia Lam. Theo makes plans to go back to Pakistan as a Pashtun in order to find mother.
The plot in this novel has lots of nuances; there’s a lot going on and for the most part, none of it is good. I have to admit that it was tough reading for a while because everything that happens is ghastly, both the past history of the lives we are reading about, and the prospect for a happy ending after the peace-talk group is taken hostage. Nothing much in the first part of the story will prepare you for the ending and there are several quick turns to negotiate along the way. I very much enjoyed this book and hope to read others by the same author soon.