The Chicago Tribune
Review: The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism
Eric Banks / May 21, 2011
Baker creates a complex portrait of the young [Margaret Marcus / Maryam Jameelah]. She is a sensitive, mostly friendless child who bristles at her family’s lack of spirituality, develops an abiding sense of moral absolutism, and becomes fascinated, then obsessed, with Arab culture, particularly the fate of the Palestinians following Israeli statehood and the Suez Canal crisis. But she also finds a querulous and tempestuous Peggy, whose growing estrangement and angry tirades end in a nervous breakdown during her first year in college, an eventual diagnosis of schizophrenia, and commitment to a ghoulish string of appalling psychiatric wards. The solution she sought in Islam wasn’t only spiritual. But these are only clues. The deeper Baker probes, the more the mystery of Jameelah’s story grows. In her letters, her subject is a provocative narrator of her own life, setting forth in remarkable clarity her experiences and the reasons she made the choices that she did. […]Baker has subtitled her book “a parable,” and it does raise fascinating questions about the relations of the West and Islam, about religion, freedom, and choice, but it’s a parable as well about the quixotic search for certainty, both by Baker, who realizes its futility, and by Jameelah, who finally remains a true believer. Or so it seems. Mindful of the cul-de-sacs she’s navigating, Baker has constructed “The Convert” in a roundabout way, with a reflexive narrative that keeps undermining itself in the process of its unfolding. […] For all its inside-out structure, Baker’s book remarkably mirrors Jameelah’s vexing life.