American Mother by Colum McCann with Diane Foley review — amazing grace

<span>‘That we should all be so decent and so wise, so generous of heart’: Diane Foley at home in Rochester, New Hampshire.</span><span>Photograph: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images</span>
‘That we should all be so decent and so wise, so generous of heart’: Diane Foley at home in Rochester, New Hampshire.Photograph: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

In August, 2014, Diane Foley went to church in Rochester, New Hampshire. Her son, Jim, a photojournalist, had then been a hostage of Islamic State in Syria for almost two years. It was late at night, and she was exhausted and alone. The US government, insistent that it would not pay ransoms to terrorists, would do nothing for her family; it was hellish living in fear of the sound of the telephone; the waiting and the wondering could drive a person mad. And so, here she was, clicking her rosary beads, kneeling to repeat her prayers. In that moment, all she wanted was for God to take over. She had decided to surrender her son to His plan, and by doing so, hoped to find some modicum of peace.

Even for those who believe in Him, God moves in mysterious ways. When Foley learned, only a week later, that Jim had been executed by his captors, she was devastated. Her world turned. But she was also – or so it seems to me, a non-believer –in a state of utmost preparedness. The “enormity of clarity” she experienced in church that night stayed with her through all that would follow: the press conference that was held outside her home; the brief, inadequate phone call from President Obama; the funeral that would take place in spite of the fact the Foleys had no body to bury; the arrest and trial of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, two of the men (members of the group that was known as the IS Beatles) who had murdered her son. Above all, it would stay with her when she met Kotey in prison in 2022, an arrangement born of his plea bargain. She was (and is) full of grace, in all of that beautiful word’s senses – and it strikes me now that this was what brought the novelist Colum McCann to want to write about her. Can such a quality be adequately articulated? Can it ever be put into (non-embarrassing) words? And if so, how might those words work on an open-hearted reader?

Unlike many people supposedly more sophisticated and better educated than her, Foley is able to hold two contradictory thoughts at once

When critics talk of writerly daring, I’m pretty sure they don’t have in mind the kind of book in which the Holy Spirit is written about with no less conviction (or fuss) than the seasons, or a journey to an airport. But it is daring, isn’t it? If Christianity is the opposite of fashionable, devout Catholicism, at least for many liberals, is absolutely beyond the pale. Some readers of American Mother, the book McCann has written with Diane Foley, will get to the section where she explains that she allowed the same bishop who had refused to say mass for Jim while he was in captivity to officiate at his funeral, and see her as a kind of hostage herself: the prisoner of a church that is riven with the worst kind of hypocrisy. But I’m not one of them. I found her faith bracing, for the very reason that it’s unusual, and it’s also the scaffolding on which she balances ideas that should matter to us all: of compassion, of forgiveness, of understanding. Unlike so many people these days, most of them supposedly far more sophisticated and better educated than her, Foley is able to hold two contradictory thoughts at once. Faced for a second time with a shackled Kotey in a prison visiting room, she notices the muscles he has developed and feels both resentful that he is alive and healthy, and glad that he’s being treated well, for two wrongs do not make a right. Our culture misuses the word “humbling”; it is deployed without meaning – or, worse, to denote pride – in speeches and on social media. But reading American Mother is nothing but humbling: that we should all be so decent and so wise, so generous of heart.

Foley describes her son’s captivity fully and with a certain vitality: an account based on conversations with those hostages – from European countries, whose governments were, in the end, willing to pay ransoms, albeit via proxies – who made it home. Here are the games of draughts played with fruit stones; the mock fights the guards forced their prisoners to have (they tried not to hurt one another); the cold nights during which they slept close together to keep warm. One former hostage tells her that Jim was the one among them best able to move his spirit “outside the box”, words that give her great comfort. It’s strange to say it, but as heinous as James Foley’s death was – his captors beheaded him, an act they recorded on camera – the reader is perhaps more shocked, because this is new information, by the failure of the response of the US authorities to his initial capture. The FBI is only barely in touch. Its intelligence is clearly threadbare. Three months after Jim’s death, Diane is invited to meet Obama at the White House. He is cold. His words – “Jim was my highest priority” – have a hollow ring.

Perhaps it is invidious to say anything about the style of American Mother; questions of literary merit would appear to be almost irrelevant in this context. But the way the book is written fascinated me. An anonymous ghost can ventriloquise freely; there’s no risk to his or her reputation. McCann, though, has chosen to be the primary author of this book, and at points, you sense the strain of this, for him; his writerly pride, his hard-won instincts. While most of the book is in the first person, and sounds like Diane Foley (or so we assume), the first and last chapters, both accounts of her meetings in prison with Kotey, are in the third person. To my ears, these sections don’t ring true. Overwritten and rather tortuous, they tell us, I think, a lot about the limits of nonfiction; had this been a novel, McCann might have been better able to find the right words for all that passes, often silently, between Foley and her son’s killer; he might have brought us closer to emotional truth. As it is, there’s a banality here. Foley’s decision to meet Kotey, to allow herself to have human feelings for him (his small daughters, stuck in a camp in Syria, prey on her mind), is profound, particularly in the face of his un-repentance. But it’s also, somehow, beyond the capacities of a book like this. I wanted more, though I should also say that I’m very glad to have read it, especially at this moment, the news from Gaza bleak and unrelenting. There is consolation in these pages; it left me feeling just a little less scattered.

Rachel Cooke is curating a series of talks titled Provocations, or Difficult Conversations in the home of the Talking Cure, at the Freud Museum (, London. The next one is with psychologist Frank Tallis on 6 March

  • American Mother by Colum McCann with Diane Foley is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply