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The tick-tock of a terrorist before he attacks

By Carrie Brown
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

31 HOURS

By Masha Hamilton

Unbridled. 229 pp. $24.95

Masha Hamilton's career as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East gives her new novel, "31 Hours," the authority of a true witness. It's the desperate story of a disenchanted young American coached by Islamic radicals plotting an act of terrorism in New York City. Hamilton has used both her considerable empathy as a writer and her experience in the Middle East to create an intimate portrait of 21-year-old Jonas Meitzner. It's not easy to like him for what he intends to do, much less admire him, but Hamilton makes us aware of his humanity.

The novel follows Jonas -- buying last-minute supplies, worrying, trying to reassure himself through the rituals of prayer and cleansing -- as he prepares to carry out a suicide bombing mission. At last, alone in his nearly empty apartment, he thinks he will call his girlfriend and say goodbye. "He punched the number . . . and heard nothing. He tried the speed dial for his mother, and then for his father, and then, staving off desperation, he tried to call a couple of friends he hadn't seen in months." Finally, he understands that his handlers have disabled his phone. It's excruciating to watch him realize how completely he's been separated from anyone he knows.

While Jonas is reckoning with the choice he has made, Hamilton interweaves the stories of his potential victims and the people who love him. His mother, Carol, solidly kind and responsible, wakes up in the middle of the night, certain that something is profoundly wrong with her son. We also see Vic, who became Jonas's lover on a rainy morning in a tent by a lake in the Adirondacks. These portraits show us the well-intentioned figures lining Jonas's road to ruin and their helpless position as bystanders.

In the hours before his planned attack, Jonas eats a gyro and loves the taste of it. He remembers his mother, the smell of her. He recalls making love with Vic. Sensitive, lonely and full of the anger and doubt many young people feel, Jonas seems in Hamilton's hands not a stranger, not an impenetrable figure of dread whose behavior is beyond our understanding, but the ordinary, fragile child of ordinary, fragile people. You don't exactly want to look at the story of what happens to Jonas, but Hamilton has made it very hard to tear your gaze away.

Brown is the author of five novels, most recently "The Rope Walk," and a collection of short stories.

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