A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED by Dara Horn

Book Quote:

“What happens to days that disappear? The light fades, the gates begin to close, and all that a day once held— a glance, a fight, a taste of bread, a handful of braided hair, thousands of worries and triumphs and regrets— all of it slips between those closing gates, vanishing into a dark and silent room. When Josephine Ashkenazi first invented Genizah, all she wanted to to do was open those gates.

At least, that was how it started.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (FEB 18, 2014)

The idea for writing a modern version of the biblical story of Joseph came apparently from the author’s husband. It is a brilliant one, even more brilliantly executed. First, because she uses it for resonance rather than prediction; you recognize the biblical parallels after they have occurred, but you never know when she is going to depart from the Genesis version, so her novel remains surprising to the end. Second, because the Egyptian setting grounds the book in aspects of Jewish history that are perhaps less well-known, but obviously relevant to the eternal geopolitical situation in the Middle East. And third, because the Torah reference provides the perfect opening to explore many issues in Jewish teaching and philosophy, most notably those concerning divine providence, accident, and free will. The title of her novel, actually, is borrowed from a treatise on these very questions written in Cairo by the twelfth century doctor and philosopher Maimonides. The result, in Horn’s hands, is a richly layered novel that is humane, exciting, informative, and thought-provoking, all at the same time.

Josephine (Josie) Ashkenazi is a software developer and CEO of a company called Genizah, which enables its customers to record, index, cross-reference, and recall even the most trivial aspects of their lives, linking them to everything around them in both historical and geographical dimensions. She is asked to go to Egypt as consultant on a vast new library in Alexandria, and accepts the challenge, leaving behind her Israeli-born husband Itamar, her six-year-old daughter Tali, and her elder sister Judith, who has a subsidiary position with the firm. I must admit that there was something a little science-fictiony about the premise (or magical realist, if you will); although the ideas are all conceivable, it requires some suspension of disbelief to accept the degree to which they had been developed. But two things happen to anchor the book almost immediately. The first is that the action suddenly shifts back to 1896 in Cambridge, England, where two formidable Scottish sisters confront the University Reader in Rabbinics, Solomon Schechter, with a fragment of manuscript they have recently brought back from Cairo. Despite the slightly comic tone of this episode, it is also feels entirely true, and indeed one discovers that Schechter was a real person. And when Josie goes to Egypt, she falls victim to a more contemporary reality: she is kidnapped and held for ransom. The suspension of disbelief quality never goes away completely from Josie’s story, but from now on her role as CEO fades behind those as absent wife, missing mother, and beaten woman.

Genizah, the name of Josie’s firm, is the Hebrew word for the store-room in a synagogue where Torah scrolls and similar documents were placed after they had become unusable, for the name of God could not be erased. The real Schechter unearthed in the Genizah of a Cairo synagogue a chaotic hoard of documents, secular as well as sacred, a discovery which made his name. Among them were letters from Maimonides and a draft of his Guide for the Perplexed. This opens the door to scenes in Cairo of the 12th century, to interweave with those in the 19th and 21st. It also introduces some of the philosophical themes of the book.

Horn is a Jewish writer (and winner of two National Jewish Book Awards), not just because she writes about Jewish characters and subjects, but because she shares the Jewish fascination with philosophical debate. There is a chapter, for instance, in which Maimonides outlines five theories of divine providence, ranging from total predestination to utter chance, and another in which he classifies three different kinds of evil. Other readers might consider these dry diversions, but they fascinated me both as ideas and for how they linked to the moral implications of the story of Josie and her family at home. They formed a serious core to the novel that amply balanced its more fantastic aspects. And indeed balance is all; the more I look, the more I see parallels and linkages that bind this complex novel together. Perhaps some of its characters could be developed a little further, but as a theme-based novel it could hardly be bettered.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 68 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company (September 9, 2013)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Dara Horn
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February 18, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Family Matters, Literary, Middle East, Speculative (Beyond Reality), Theme driven, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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