Portions of this review were originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (12/9/11), which supplied an Advance Reader Copy (furnished by the publisher) and payment. All opinions expressed are my own.
Abu Saheed–”Father Truth”–is the ironically-chosen pseudonym of the narrator of Benjamin Buchholz’ debut novel, One Hundred and One Nights. The site of his new shop selling mobile phones and satellite dishes in the southern Iraqi town of Safwan allows a prime view of the highway overpass used by the passing American military convoys, which he tracks daily. Although he hasn’t been in town or in business long, his life seems to have taken on a routine in just weeks: days in the marketplace, dinners at an old friend’s restaurant, and nights alone in his unfinished house. That new routine is unsettled when a local girl begins visiting him in the evenings as he’s closing the shop.
Of course, things aren’t what they seem. Through use of flashback, foreshadowing, and stream of consciousness, Buchholz unwinds the story of an Iraqi physician who returns home to Baghdad after years of study and medical practice in Chicago, believing he could help his country rebuild after the fall of Saddam Hussein…and is now in this isolated southern town selling mobile phones as a cover for a mission bent on destruction. That mission isn’t what it seems, either. As the story builds, the reader begins to question the reliability of the narrator and the reality of his situation, and this adds to the dramatic tension as the flashbacks and the present converge.
Buchholz’s unit of the Wisconsin National Guard was deployed to Iraq in 2005, and he and his family have remained in the Middle East; his assumption of an Iraqi voice and viewpoint, and his depiction of native characters, settings, and customs are informed and convincing. One Hundred and One Nights is an absorbing, affecting, and beautifully-written first novel.
From the publisher: After 13 years in America, Abu Saheeh has returned to his native Iraq, a nation transformed by the American military presence. Alone in a new city, he has exactly what he wants: freedom from his past. Then he meets Layla, a whimsical fourteen-year-old girl who enchants him with her love of American pop culture. Enchanted by Layla’s stories and her company, Abu Saheeh settles into the city’s rhythm and begins rebuilding his life. But two sudden developments–his alliance with a powerful merchant and his employment of a hot-headed young assistant–reawaken painful memories, and not even Layla may be able to save Abu Saheeh from careening out of control and endangering all around them.
A breathtaking tale of friendship, love, and betrayal, One Hundred and One Nights is an unforgettable novel about the struggle for salvation and the power of family.