Dunia Ahmed disappeared over a year ago. But before she vanished, weird things were happening, including multiple attempts on her life. So, obviously, two self-proclaimed journalists start a podcast to monetize her tragedy.
In her third novel, “Almost Surely Dead,” Amina Akhtar departs from trends and fashion to sink deep into a missing-person mystery with humorous cynicism and an increasingly creepy edge.
Two years ago, Dunia, a pharmacist, was in the middle of her regular commute when a fellow subway rider tried to throw her onto the tracks. And this New York nightmare scenario isn’t the first she’ll face.
Between her stalker ex-fiancé, David, and the unsettling notes showing up at her work and apartment, it seems like an open and shut case. But flashbacks to when Dunia was 5 suggest there may be something more sinister at play.
In these chapters, we see young Dunia’s beloved father telling her ghost stories on the sly, teaching her the pieces of her Desi culture that her mother would rather they sweep under the rug: jinns stealing princesses and grotesque churail. Dunia’s also a perceptive kid; she hears the whispers and knows her aunt was also deemed “pagal” — mentally ill, locked up somewhere back in Pakistan.
On top of the childhood trauma and jinn stories, Dunia’s been sleepwalking again since her mother’s death. Disoriented and exhausted, she can’t trust her own eyes and ears.
As the story progresses and the world opens up more, truths that Dunia couldn’t see at 5 years old come sifting up to the surface, and suddenly the narrative is a lot more complicated. Who should we direct our anger and fear at?
In a stark commentary on victim-blaming, other characters seem to answer: Dunia.
Dunia is victimized over and over — by people who seem to see it as their right to treat her poorly or make her relive her near-death experience, from virtual strangers wanting to hear about how she was almost killed to her sister demanding a level of communication not merited by their thin thread of a relationship.
Then there’s the podcast — at first fairly serious, but the transcripts soon devolve into “No spoilers!” and absurdly tasteless promotional ads. In one of many ruthless portrayals of society and the media, both hosts let David’s racism slide without comment when he calls Dunia exotic and talks about how he had a thing for Indian girls in his interview.
And beneath it all, growing until it can’t be ignored any longer, the supernatural stays at a steady hum.
“Almost Surely Dead” is the perfect psychological thriller for a dark and stormy night or a rainy day alone on the couch. Strap in, because there’s never a good stopping point with Akhtar, a master of pacing and suspense who keeps you guessing until the end.
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