A cartoonist who has drawn satirical pictures of the prophet Muhammed is giving a reading at a shop in Gothenburg, Sweden, when two men and a woman step forward wearing bomb vests and carrying automatic weapons. The woman films while the men zip-tie and hood the hostages, while a police sniper kills one of the men, and as the other man yanks the cartoonist by the hair and holds a knife to his neck. Then she stops the video, raises her rifle, and shoots the terrorist, her husband.
The mystery of why this woman—whom her husband calls Nour after his dead sister, but whom the authorities call Annika based on her Belgian passport, all while she remains unnamed to readers—shot the second terrorist instead of going through with their plan to detonate their vests is part of what drives Johannes Anyuru's novel, They Will Drown in Their Mothers' Tears. It's a compelling enough plotline on its own; but the narrative also follows a famous writer, likewise unnamed, as he tries to piece together her increasingly bizarre story. In doing so, he discovers that her past—involving torture, time travel, and a not too distant future Sweden that is frighteningly resonant—is not so unbelievable as at first glance, and overlaps with his own life in too many ways for him to ignore. His quest for truth forces him to reconcile his own feelings of hope and despair, rooted in being the child of immigrants and seen as an outsider in the country of his birth. Meanwhile, Anyuru forces readers to confront harsh realities by combining beautiful language with horrific descriptions, truths from our past with dark possibilities for our future.
Anyuru's Sweden is split between a familiar present and a stark future shaped by the terrorist attack on the comic book store. And here's where the plot really starts to fly, for in the dystopian future the girl claims to come from, the attack on the comic store was seen through to completion—and led to a tyrannical backlash against Sweden's Muslim communities. Her memories of the future end in a concentration camp where she is tortured to death; she wakes up in a different past, in a different body, and in a Belgian hospital. This body belongs to Annika, also a victim of experimental torture, and while Annika is Flemish, the girl in her body does not comprehend that language. It isn't until she escapes the hospital and overhears a Swedish couple that she understands language for the first time. This causes her to hitchhike north, on a journey that leads to Amin, whom she recognizes from videos from her future, and, ultimately, to the comic store where she believes she has a chance to prevent that future from happening.
I usually do not like time travel stories; as a plot function, time travel too often serves as an intended vehicle for the author's cleverness, and too often becomes an albatross around the neck of the narrative. But here Anyuru uses the fluidity of time less as a device and more as a mutable "landscape" (p. 85) of elided possibilities, a dreamworld that is sometimes nightmarish and sometimes frighteningly real. If time is a river, Anyuru seems to be saying, then it's a wide and deep one, and the most interesting stories are those which sometimes get trapped in the eddies and at others shoot forward suddenly on unexpected currents. I'll leave the vagaries of the plot for readers to unwind and discover—this is a book which rewards repeat readings—and instead focus on three aspects which, in addition to the plotting, help make this book so poignant.
The first is perspective. The primary viewpoint of the novel is our narrator’s as he interviews the girl, tracks down her story, and interacts with his wife and daughter. This is interspersed with segments written by the girl for him, as she relates her past/future. These are both written in the first person, and with no section or chapter headings, and no names for our main characters. It is not always immediately clear, then, whose head we are in. The effect is occasionally bewildering, but in these places the confusion is deliberate; Anyuru manipulates our perceptions to show the proximity of present and future, and to highlight the underlying similarities between two characters who superficially share so little.
There are other perspective shifts, too, such as when the narrator begins writing scenes from the girl's point of view later in the novel, signaling his growing attachment to her and how enthralled he has become by her story. In several other cases, we shift from watching video to experiencing what was formerly only on screen: first with the girl in the terror attack, and toward the end of the book with the initiation of the other male attacker, Hamad, as he executes bound prisoners in Syria. In both instances, time and narrative become nonlinear as realities start to overlap.
This sense of pancaked realities permeates the text in other ways, too. Early on the girl is described as feeling "like she's watching herself from outside her body" (p. 16); another time she says, "I look in the mirror and that's not me […] It's not my face" (p. 46). We're similarly told she "can't get her head around her lack of compassion. Maybe it has something to do with the camera, how it isolates events from each other and from reality" (p. 24), that "she's both perpetrator and witness" (p. 26). All of this narrative uncanniness serves to highlight the dislocation of our two main characters, but also the sense of unreality, or perhaps surreality, of being the other in your home country, and it is here that the book speaks so strongly to our times.
While the concerns may be Swedish on the surface, these questions of identity and belonging, of the experiences of minority groups, are relevant to us all. It is a story we see repeated again and again in our news, a focus that has been growing for those in the West. Over the development of the novel we witness the radicalization of Hamad and of the girl, yes; but we also see the radicalization of white Swedes as far right groups gain greater sway both legally, through passing restrictive laws—which over time lead to concentration camps—and privately through terrorizing Muslim residents. There are multiple occasions on which the girl is abused by white Swedes for not being "Swedish" enough—she is followed home, a pig's head is thrown through her window, their apartment is vandalized, her mother is pushed from a bridge—and the novel asks us to contemplate what it even means to have a nationality:
who was the first Swede anyway—the one who'd decided who got to be Swedish? He didn't exist, and there was a hole where he was supposed to be, a hole inside the word 'Swedish' that sometimes made it look like the faces of my laughing classmates were masks cut out of plastic or paper. An emptiness. (p. 66)
That sense of emptiness becomes a recurring motif: "During physics the next week, our teacher created emptiness in a glass tube using a vacuum pump, and I panicked because I imagined the glass was going to blow up and unleash that emptiness" (p. 68). The first time the girl is accosted by Swedish men, she says, "I don't remember what they looked like: when I think about them, their faces are just empty holes" (p. 88). The narrator sees it, too, when he meets her in the psychiatric ward: "I searched her eyes for something I could recognize—human contact, or guilt, after all, guilt over the world she'd helped create. There was nothing but a sucking dark absence" (p. 87).
That emptiness may be the enemy, but there's a kind of strength in it, too, for it allows people to ignore the humanity of others. As the girl's mother puts it, the goal of the anti-Muslim laws and harassment wasn't just to pit Swedish people against one another, but to single out some groups: "You're either human or an animal" (p. 75). This allows the Swedes from the future to round up Muslims, experiment on them, and kill them; but it also allows Hamad, Amin, and Nour to blow up the comic store. As the girl observes in the present timeline, "I remember thinking that she and Amin had let the emptiness in and it made them strong" (p. 139).
The other sociopolitical angle of the novel has to do with the torture of the girl in the future, and the torture of Annika in the present. Annika is tortured at al-Mima, a secret site run by an NGO somewhere in the Middle East with clear echoes of Abu Ghraib. That infamous detention center is referenced in the novel by the nearly killed cartoonist, Loberg, who finds hilarity in the images of pyramids of naked prisoners and inmates smeared in feces. Loberg comes across as a despicable kind of living death when the narrator interviews him over Skype, scabbed and flaking with his face freezing on the screen like "a pixelated mask" after claiming "torture shows the tortured, and everyone else, how ridiculous it even is to be creatures made of flesh and skin and nerves who allow themselves to believe that some things are holy" (p. 198). His philosophy is starkly contrasted with the vibrancy of the girl's mother, whose Sufism leads her to a reverence of the divine in nature; her final words before being pushed to her death are, "We're a love poem […] Do you know that? […] Everything is God's love poem" (p. 97).
There is a poetry to Anyuru's writing, too, and it comes as no surprise to learn that his first published book was a critically acclaimed poetry collection, Only the Gods Are New (2003). His frequently beautiful turns of phrase—Hamad is described as "inside a rupture of the very material of creation" (p. 269)—are paired with visceral horror—this moment of rupture for Hamad occurs in Syria after execution of a prisoner who wears Hamad's face and pleads with him in his own voice. Anyuru isn't glorying in the pain and misery here so much as forcing us to slow down and confront these things with eyes wide open; there's something very Nabokovian about his loving attention to detail during these moments, such as the food that inmates are served in the concentration camp: "we were given sandwiches, and the thin slice of pink pork on my bread was streaked with blood. It reminded me of flayed human flesh" (p. 137). In just a few words, non-Muslims get a clear sense of the profaneness of forcing these inmates to eat pork. The power and economy of Anyuru's imagery is also shown in the other dominant motif in the text, made all the more poignant for its ambiguity.
After a police sniper has shot Hamad through the head, the girl "thinks she sees a moth, large as her palm, crawling over Hamad's face […] Wings trembling, the moth creeps across his forehead and into his hair. She stares at it, frozen" (p. 27). The moths, which she sees repeatedly in the novel, are associated with impending death and with "a flaw in time" (p. 34). So on the one hand, they're a convenient signpost to readers to set up expectations and warn of what's coming; on the other hand, aside from the fact that they are too large and she's the only one who sees them, the moths aren't particularly frightening in their own right.
She certainly never seems to be startled by them. When the girl first wakes in hospital in Annika's body, she remarks, "[s]omeone caressed my forehead. Maybe because I was crying. I saw a moth. It was crawling over the drip bag, as large as a child's hand, and then flew at the window, toward the falling snow" (p. 213). She spots them in the elevator when she first encounters Amin, and in the car with Amin and Hamad as they begin to contemplate their attack. What do the moths mean? There's no easy answer here, and that's what I like so much about them. Moths are much more ambiguous, symbolically speaking, than, say, butterflies, and Anyuru's usage of them is even more layered. They're uncanny without being foreboding, simultaneously fascinating and dreadful. There's no ending scene with a single moth floating up to the sky and disappearing like an escaping soul, no eclipse of moths descending like snow to blot out the earth; these would be too overwrought and simplistic. Instead, Anyuru leaves it open-ended, like a good poem, forcing us to read ourselves into the imagery to derive our own meaning.
One might assume, given the discussion above, that this book is a challenging read, or perhaps one which pushes its agenda too hard: heavy, the kind of book you have to psych yourself up for. That's a limitation of this reviewer, not the author. Anyuru's text is mesmeric, his characters heartbreakingly flawed and compelling. There is a terrible beauty here which is hard to look away from. Anyuru is on the bleeding edge of what well-crafted speculative fiction can do and is for, and you owe it to yourself to run your thumb along that edge with him … and feel how finely it cuts.