Child of Ishmael (by James Wright)

This book was offered as a free Kindle edition for a couple of days by a Facebook friend; it’s not something I would have noticed, otherwise, as James Wright isn’t a name I recognised. But it’s the pen-name of someone who has lived and worked in the Middle East/Asia for some years, who has done a lot of non-fiction writing; this is his first novel and parts of it are probably based on personal experience.

‘Child of Ishmael’ has a couple of main characters, and the viewpoint switches regularly between them and others. Ben is a quiet and caring pastor, someone brought into a church to help sort out some stresses and who is evidently a peacemaker by personality. He clashes with some of the other leaders in the church, and so far has given in to their wishes.

Curt is the son of one of the men who clashes with Ben; he travels a lot and hasn’t been very interested in God although he belongs to Ben’s church.

The early chapters help us see both these men in their everyday lives, and give some idea of their personalities. Tensions arise when a mosque is built across the street from Ben’s church, but he befriends some of the people involved, including a visiting Imam from Turkistan. After several chapters a serious incident helps Curt to re-think his lifestyle and commit himself to God.

The second half of the book is set in Turkistan; after much soul-searching and a crisis letter, Ben travels there with a doctor and also Curt, whose British grandfather once worked there; he hopes to find out more about him, and discover why his parents are reluctant to talk about the past.

It’s a good story, although I found the first half rather slow-moving and over-detailed, with too many viewpoint switches. There were a lot of conversations that were little more than small talk, neither adding to the plot nor building character. There were also descriptions of several unappetising meals that rather put me off the people concerned. Then there were exact details of what was said in prayers, even by people giving thanks for food; these, too, didn’t add anything to the story. I felt that the first half of the book could have benefitted from an editor’s knife in many places.

I also found myself skimming lengthy - and basic - explanations about the Muslim faith, which felt as if they were there to be educational rather than as a natural part of discussion. However, I understand that the book was, in part, written to help educate people in parts of the US who apparently know very little about Islam and multi-cultural society.

The second part of the book, set in Turkistan, moves much more rapidly, and is a lot more gripping. The descriptions are vivid and help to paint a good picture of the places, the culture and the people. While I’d guessed some chapters earlier what Curt was going to find out, I found Ben’s side of the story quite moving. I lost the thread a couple of times - there are a lot of minor characters - but in a sense that helped to add to the feeling of confusion and strangeness that the American visitors were feeling, visiting such a different culture.

Unfortunately there are a few technical problems with my Kindle edition. There are places where sentences aren’t finished, or where something doesn’t quite make sense. There's also a lot of poor formatting which makes it harder to read. I didn’t notice these things so much in the latter part of the book, once I was engaged with the action; but thought it a pity that these were not sorted out before publication. The book is also published in paperback so it may be that these errors were only in the electronic form of the book.

Overall, I thought it made a good story and I’m glad I read it.

Links given are to paperback editions of 'Child of Ishmael' but the Kindle editions are also available on both sides of the Atlantic, and are considerably cheaper although no longer free.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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