It took me a while to really sink my teeth into Gladdy’s Wake. The book weaves in and out of three generations, each tying together through family, hints of religion, and the story of Nawal Habib, a devout Muslim. Nawal (once Janie Kelly) is suspected of terrorism, an act that reunites her with her estranged brother, Frank (now a priest) and hospitalized father, Daniel (a once devout Catholic); both of whom she left to eventually reinvent herself as Nawal Habib. The story runs through Nawal’s family tragedy, her rebellion, the birth of her son, and eventual religious transformation, all the while introducing the reader to her grandfather, James Kelly, a womanizing Irish immigrant interested in fast cash with no real ethical principles, lest it regard his passion: Gladdy Sage.
Though each story is captivating, the book is fractured and difficult to engage in. It seemed that each time I fell into the story, the author interfered with an abrupt switch from one narrator to the next. It was not until the near end of the novel that Anderson’s transitions became fluid and absorbing, the way a book should really grab your attention and not let go.
Nevertheless, the story is a unique twist on the post-9/11 novel and introduces the reader to the challenges of belief systems and the interconnectedness of the human race through the passion of moral conviction. While the protagonists devote their lives to different ideologies, from Islam to Catholicism, atheism and the idolization of romantic love, each struggle with the reality of their idols and the conflicts that exist within themselves and their systems of belief. In this way, Gladdy’s Wake takes a critical look into how we follow faith and why we accepts conceptions of the “moral life” that contradict our character.
Nawal struggles with jihad and the role of women in Islam; Frank with the Catholic vilification of his hidden sexual orientation; Michael Kaminsky (Gladdy’s object of affection and James Kelly’s match) struggles with his Jewish heritage in the Communist revolution; and James Kelly with the real Gladdy Sage – an alcoholic escapist, devoted to Michael Kaminsky and the drink. None of the characters in Anderson’s novel are able to see their deities for what they are. Each blinds himself or herself, excusing as a way of maintaining the pedestal upon which they have placed their flawed idea of morality.
In turn, the story employs a seemingly fractured start to reveal the connection between the disconnected by relating the characters on a moral level. In this way, the author recovers her initial shortcomings. Though this lends the question, what makes a book? Its ability to capture its audience upfront, or to engage its reader with a critical approach to a heavy issue?