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'The Brothers': Masha Gessen's portrait of the Boston Marathon bombers

An aunt in Dagestan holds a family photo

An aunt in Dagestan holds a family photo showing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (center, bottom) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (center, top), with their sisters. Credit: Reuters /Landov / STRINGER

THE BROTHERS: The Road to an American Tragedy, by Masha Gessen. Riverhead, 273 pp., $27.95.

A balanced account of an event as shattering as the Boston Marathon bombing will by its nature be controversial. Many will not want to learn of the torment and disillusion of the perpetrators, as they will be understandably invested in the bystanders killed and maimed that day. Masha Gessen, author of "The Brothers," anticipates such resistance and, in an opening note, explains, "This book, however, is not about that pain . . . it is about the tragedy that preceded the bombing, the reasons that led to it, and its invisible victims."

Gessen argues that the brothers behind the bombing, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were driven to violence not by ideological rage but by a sense of entrapment, traps that any Muslim man living in the United States since 9/11 must navigate. To understand why seemingly ordinary kids choose to blow people up, she walks the road that leads the brothers to the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Dzokhar was convicted by a federal jury in Boston on April 8.

Zubeidat, the boys' mother, was born in Dagestan in 1967. The city of Makhachkala was pre-modern, a landscape of knifings and human waste and 100 languages. She married Anzor, a Chechen. They settled with his family in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, where concrete fencing blocked the view of the mountains. The couple's first child, Tamerlan, was born in 1986.

"He was perfect and, Zubeidat knew, always would be," writes Gessen.

The couple had two daughters, and in 1993, another son, Dzhokhar. The family was living in Chechnya when war broke out with Russia. They returned to Makhachkala, determined to emigrate.

"They landed in America," writes Gessen, of the family's arrival in Boston shortly after 9/11, "precisely at the moment when they and their kind were seen as most suspect."

The family settled in an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tamerlan boxed in high school. He was good enough to try out for the Olympics but did not. He was a flamboyant dresser, a big talker, but never able to reach a perch from which he could launch. He delivered pizzas and sold large quantities of pot. He may or may not have been involved in the murder of a fellow drug dealer. He lived in the family apartment with his wife and baby. There was little money. By 2009, he and Zubeidat were studying the Koran.

Gessen, a Russian-American who has written books about Putin and Pussy Riot, speaks with people in Makhachkala who say that for 12 years they did not know what happened to the Tsarnaev family, until members started to drift back in 2012 -- first Anzor, a broken man; then Zubeidat, by then wearing the hijab, and Tamerlan, who hung out with young men who "spent their days talking about themselves, their religion, and the injustices of the world." Gessen does not think Tamerlan was radicalized so much as that he felt "his body had plugged into its place in a puzzle."

In 2012, Dzhokhar seemed to fit in the States just fine. He had graduated with honors from high school and was, writes Gessen, "still in his cloud of sweetness and light." Now going by Jahar, the 19-year-old lived in a dorm at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He smoked and sold weed, slept through classes, played video games. In July, his brother returned to Boston. He suggested Jahar spend more time studying the Koran. In March, Jahar casually mentioned to friends that he learned how to build a bomb in chemistry class, and then suddenly it was the day of the bombing, April 15, 2013. Gessen covers the carnage in one sentence, choosing to keep her lens on the two other people ultimately killed or injured, the brothers Tsarnaev.

"As for the brothers themselves," she writes, "theirs remains a small story, in which nothing extraordinary happens -- or, rather, no extraordinary event is necessary to explain what happened. One had only to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many people are, to never feel that one belongs, to see every opportunity, even those that seem within reach, pass one by -- until the opportunity to be somebody finally, almost accidentally, presents itself."

An immigrant from Russia to Boston herself at age 16, Gessen suggests that Tamerlan "decided to use a bomb to explain his opposition." This overlooks the fact that Tamerlan made many bad choices before his last one.

Gessen has done valuable work, shoe-leather reporting rather than the reflexive condemnation that flows after any murder, any attack. And while she is to be commended for humanizing rather than demonizing the brothers, she too often casts them in a kindly light. The overcorrection, meant to give a fuller picture, instead offers another point of view.

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