'The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.' Reveals a Talent for Understatement
It's only in America that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.Publisher: Akashic
Length: 380 pages
Author: Gina B. Nahai
Publication date: 2014-10
Gina B. Nahai’s The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is described as a sweeping saga, a family drama, and a mystery. That’s a lot for one book to accomplish, but for the most part The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. doesn't disappoint.
The story opens with a possible murder (just one of the many mysteries in the book) in Los Angeles in 2013. An Iranian Jewish man, Raphael’s Son, is found with his throat slit, but by the time the police arrive, the body has vanished. Has he been murdered (there are plenty of suspects) or he did he fake his own death in an attempt to disappear before he could be held accountable for his Ponzi-esque financial dealings?
In order to find answers, Nahai whisks readers back to 1952 Tehran, where the mystery begins. It’s a complicated story that starts with a man named Izikiel the Red and his son, Raphael (who may or may not be the father of Raphael’s Son). Nahai moves quickly, outlining a series of primarily tragic events—untimely deaths, a kidnapped child, religious persecution, financial ruin--that are blended with both historical elements and magical realism.
The magical realism is often enchanting and is inserted into the book with great delicacy. It begins with the original Raphael’s inherited incandescence: he “looked normal enough in daylight, but at night, or in dark places, his heart glowed a pulsating blue-white color that exposed all its veins and arteries…as if his chest were made of glass and his skin were transparent.”
The magical realism is one of the most intriguing parts of the book, and almost all of the magical realism seems to originate in Tehran. Nahai does note that there is magic is the US, though, it’s just not quite as enchanting: “Later, when their cash began to run low, American bankers introduced them to the magic trick called ‘credit’ that enabled them to spend money they didn’t have.”
Nahai portrays different cultures, generations, and religions, and often focuses on the differences. For example, the narrator notes on several occasions that it is only in America that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Still, the main themes — love, acceptance, and revenge -- seem almost universal. Nahai moves back and forth between continents and time periods and with each step brings audiences a little bit closer to figuring out the mysteries, the connections, and what actually happened to Raphael’s Son (yes, "Son" is his given name).
While the book is more plot based than character based, character names are often important—from almost non-names like Raphael’s Son or Raphael’s Wife to (nick)names like John Vain, who wears cowboy boots and doesn't fair well in the story.
Despite the lack of character development, however, there are still characters whose plights tug at the heartstrings. One of the most aching moments concerns a character that appears very briefly. He is the father of one of the policeman investigating Raphael’s Son’s death/disappearance. Like so many characters in the book, the father is an immigrant. His son Leon supports him. Every day the father puts on a suit and tie even though he doesn’t have a job to go to. Instead, he goes to the market, spends far too much time selecting the best produce, and then returns home on the bus, where he sits “in the rear… and crie[s] quietly for his wasted life and ravaged pride.”
In fact, this is a book filled with small but important elements and it will be enjoyed most by careful readers. Many of these small things are subtle jabs from the somewhat overly intrusive narrator. Leon’s background includes one of these jabs; readers learn he came to the US when he was 14 as part of an aid mission. His “host family set out to teach Leon how to properly ‘integrate’ into American society, and they did a good job of it, so much so that by the time he went off to the University of Baltimore hardly anyone asked him where he was from anymore.” Nahai has a talent for weaving in understated comments like this, comments that audiences may have reread to determine if someone or something was being complimented, insulted, or exposed.
In other places, though, the criticisms are perfectly clear, such as when a funeral is described as “totally American—simple, rushed, poorly attended”.
Nahai’s eye for detail, whether it's succinctly summing up a funeral or providing a description of a Tehran summer, always seems to be spot on, and lines like:“Let’s just say he made love like a man who writes math tests” sometimes provide some much welcomed humor, as well.
Still, what Nahai might be praised most for is the way she sprinkles in hints and clues along with the social commentary. With all the messages conveyed here, Nahai never forgets the mystery.