The story increases speed once Ramadan arrives in the Middle East. While the first half of the book, the portion set in New Orleans, spans nearly 13 years, the second half takes place over a long weekend. This section of the book follows Ramadan from New Orleans to Turkey to Syria on his quest to find Mustafa. Ultimately, over the course of the book, Ramadan meets a host of memorable characters and visits various locations around the world, from the New Orleans Superdome, crowded with evacuees in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, to the Hagia Sophia stuffed with tourists.
If this all sounds like a bit much, that’s because it is. But Edwards holds readers’ attention with his attention to language and his skill at quick, yet rich, characterization. As the plot rips along, Edwards plays the characters straight, rather than for laughs, and in the process, he presents characters who are often able to overcome their pain or mistrust of others and do the right thing. Ramadan and the people around him respond to the dire situations they face as overwhelmed people often do: by doing the best they can.
Even with so much plot happening, Edwards is adept at callbacks and uses the earlier settings and plot points to arrive at greater meaning. More than once, as young Ramadan tries to make sense of his circumstances, he recalls the words of someone who was kind to him and repeats those words as mantras that guide him. “It’s so easy,” he tells himself, echoing a phrase he learns from a tarot card reader, which, to Ramadan, becomes a lesson that the obstacles in his path are not as formidable as they appear. “Everything depends on how hungry we are,” becomes another motto, this one picked up from Mama Joon, who explains to Ramadan that it will require great effort on his part to pursue any of his dreams. As basic as some of these mantras are, they bring comfort to Ramadan and potentially the reader, who may be reminded of the clarifying power of a simple idea.
Edwards, a critically acclaimed writer who has received both a Guggenheim fellowship and a Whiting Award, hasn’t published a book-length work in nearly two decades. His new book was worth the wait. In “Ramadan Ramsey,” Edwards has written an ebullient, picaresque novel. Despite the darkness Ramadan encounters, he focuses on the few friendly people who support him. He decides at the relevant points to lean into positivity rather than negativity — and not only overcomes the adversity of his narrative, but transcends it.