Essayist, novelist and Seattle University professor Sonora Jha follows up her acclaimed memoir, How to Raise a Feminist Son (2021), with her second novel, The Laughter, a masterfully told, thrilling investigation of privilege, heritage and exoticisation set against the backdrop of the American college campus.
The novel centers on Dr. Oliver Harding, a middle-aged white male professor at a liberal arts university in Seattle. Oliver is an accomplished academic, best known for his research into the early 20th-century English writer G.K. Chesterton. Oliver’s personal life, however, is solitary and unfulfilling. His strained relationship with his daughter is his only meaningful one.
Oliver becomes fixated on Ruhaba Khan, a Muslim professor in the university’s law school and a political firestarter on campus. Ruhaba has recently taken in Adil Alam, her teenage nephew from France who is seeking to distance himself from some trouble back home. Oliver begins mentoring Adil in an effort to impress Ruhaba, through privately Oliver exhibits contempt for and mistrust of their Muslim heritage.
In addition to their personal entanglement, Oliver and Ruhaba find themselves on opposite sides of a political upheaval on campus, where an energized and diverse collective of students is attempting to seize power from privileged white faculty members who fear their own irrelevancy. These personal and political matters lead to a heartbreaking conclusion, one which readers have been warned is coming but is made no less shocking by its inevitability.
Deeply complex and meaningful yet still an enthralling read, The Laughter is an ambitious novel that explores American social dynamics while never being preachy or overbearing. Jha’s characters represent vastly disparate political ideas, but she handles each of them with great precision and care. With this novel, she offers us a creative window into the sociopolitical dynamics that continue to reinforce cultural divisions in this country. It’s a must-read for those seeking to understand today and dream of a better tomorrow.