Lucy Abbott, a talented sous chef in her 30s, is back home in Fawn Grove, a fictional Maine town, when we meet her in “Pray for the Girl,” the newest thriller by Portland-based writer Joseph Souza. Lucy is also a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where she served as a medic and had both her legs below the knee blown off by an IED. Living with her sister, Wendy; brother-in-law, Russ; and their 15-year-old daughter, Brynn, Lucy has become obsessed with the death of Sulafi, a classmate of Brynn’s and an “Afghani” refugee. The insistence on this term is odd – an easy Google search yields that the preferred term is Afghan, since “Afghani” refers to a unit of currency. This is, unfortunately, only the tip of the iceberg.

Cover courtesy of Kensington Publishing

“Pray” follows a relatively clear path in terms of its genre, the plot twisting and turning and providing red herrings intended to throw readers off the scent. Lucy begins to snoop around, trying to figure out what happened to Sulafi, who was found buried up to her chest and whose death-by-stoning is believed by most of the town to have been meted out by her own community of refugees. The death brings back traumatic memories for Lucy of her time in Afghanistan, specifically triggering her guilt over the death of another teenager, Zarafshan, who was murdered by her own family soon after she told Lucy, “I feel safe with U.S. soldiers here.”

As Lucy meets old enemies and allies from her youth — only one, her ex-girlfriend Nadia, recognizes her — she is drawn back into the bitterness of Fawn Grove and its people, and is even briefly tempted to try to save the failing diner whose food has gone sharply downhill since Nadia’s dad, Yanni, a Greek immigrant, took it over. The town is a typical example of American economic downturn: the mills that once kept it prosperous have almost all shut down, unemployment is high, the local youth is disenchanted and bored. The arrival of the Afghan refugees appears to have been what people needed to rally them together in hatred and distrust of these outsiders.

It’s clear that Souza is trying to grapple with the very real issues of American xenophobia and Islamophobia, yet the novel ends up perpetuating a host of harmful stereotypes. In one scene, Lucy drives to the run-down, poorly designed neighborhood where the refugees are eking out a living in order to find another teenager, Nasreen, who might have information about Sulafi’s killer. The first person she approaches shouts at her that she’s dressed “like a whore,” calls her a disgrace and an infidel, and then the following ridiculous exchange ensues:

“’I’m not leaving until I find her.’

“’In my country, they would kill you for talking to me like this.’

“’I guess we’re not in your country now, are we?’ I grip the handle of the knife in my pocket.

“’This won’t be your country for long.’ He laughs and steps towards me. ‘Soon we will outnumber you and you’ll live under our rules.’

“’Over my dead body!’ I step forward and brace myself for whatever’s coming.”

The unnamed man’s proclamation here is straight out of every fearmongering, Islamophobic, xenophobic playbook. Later in the novel, when Lucy assumes for a while that he must have killed Sulafi, she is magnanimous enough to consider him a bad apple rather than an example of his community, yet this is hard to swallow when the only other Afghan characters are either dead (Sulafi, Zarafshan), mean and violent (Nasreen), or a single nameless saint who calls the police for Lucy at one point. To be fair, most of the characters in the book are flat and one-dimensional, and the dialogue is clunky and unnatural throughout, but at least other people get names and characteristics beyond their citizenship status.

Another unfortunate aspect of the book is a transgender narrative that is used as a shock-reveal halfway through — though discerning readers might guess it earlier — rendering rather cheap another moment of rich potential.

“Pray for the Girl” seems to have good intentions, and a wonderful playground of social issues and questions to revel in, but it handles its difficult, complex material lazily and without nuance. It ends up implying that each hateful person in Fawn Grove is just a single bad apple — but when you have a town full of them, might the problem be the system providing the bushels?

Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer working on her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” is forthcoming from Dutton in summer, 2020. 

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