In present-day New York, troubled young college student Jonas is in the act of purifying himself while perched on the edge of his bathtub. While Jonas thinks about his family, his girlfriend and his disillusionment with America, he also remembers his good fortune at having been chosen. Jonas is positive that he will find love in Paradise and on Earth, the two realms that exist beyond his death.
Jonas prays towards Mecca, knowing
that he must have faith in a will and a wisdom greater than his own. Later, Masoud, the director of the operation, will bring him clean clothes and a copy of the Qur’an, reminding him that he must be strong and vigorous so that he can “head for purity.” Tomorrow will belong to a greater cause; Jonas will become “pure energy,” a spark and a flash and “a name on a million lips.”
Carol, Jonas’s mother, knows that something is terribly wrong with her son's frame of mind. Amid her tumultuous night-fed fears, her mind is filled with images of Jonas, “her wild haired precious boy.” Her memories are abundant, each leading to another and another as she recollects how he always seemed so vulnerable and distant and raw, prone to an anger that seems to blow around him “like a wind gust.”
As Carol's feelings of germinal chaos radiate outwards, the lives of Hamilton's other characters intersect. There’s Sonny, a New York panhandler riddled with premonitions of disaster; Jonas’s girlfriend, Vic, an ambitious dancer who stopped calling Jonas a few weeks ago when she couldn’t get through. Vic’s heart still aches for Jonas;
like Carol, she worries about the intensity of his mood swings. Mara, Vic’s younger sister
and a girl wise beyond her years, notices that something has changed between Vic and Jonas.
With their fears and regrets these people stand, blithely unaware of their fate. Carol, sensing the worst - and convinced that she had been the right kind of mother for her boy - urgently meets with Vic in her downtown loft. Vic tries to put Carol's fears to rest, telling her that
the last time she spoke to Jonas, he seemed tired and busy but also incredibly intense
and romantic, even passionate.
Jake, Jonas’s father - distracted with his own life - is mostly in denial, refusing to acknowledge Carol’s urgent pleas for help even after he discovers a used airline ticket to Afghanistan lying on top of Jonas’s study desk. Paralyzed, Carol resorts to sitting in her apartment and wringing her hands, her eyes glazing with fear as she remembers her son
- so passionate and moral, the delicate, quiet streak that seemed to run through him.
As Jonas clothes himself in his bomb-laden waistcoat, we finally see his anger at the compromises we have all made to gain a foothold in the modern material world. Jonas's fateful mission unfolds like a ticking clock as Hamilton’s brilliant, tightly-plotted and intuitive novel moves toward its devastating finale. The author’s career as a foreign correspondent perfectly meshes with her storytelling skills as she delves deep into the fractured psyche of her misguided protagonist. Imbued with a startling sense of reality, 31 Hours is impossible to put down, a grim reminder that true terror can form in any place and at anytime.