“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…all of it slips between those closing gates, vanishing into a dark and silent room.” (p 1) In A Guide for the Perplexed, author Dara Horn offers a meditation on the question of memory, how our memories are shaped and retained, how future events can change our memories of past ones and how dwelling too much on past memories can eat up the present and future. At the same time, the book involves an international kidnapping, a retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, a discovery made by a Victorian-era Cambridge scholar of medieval manuscripts, parts of a medieval philosophical treatise, and an echo of sibling relationships through history and time. It’s a complex, layered, intelligent read that still manages to engage the reader in a very human and modern-day drama that anyone can relate to.
Josie was always a bright child, adored by her mother, unable to stop herself from explaining things, even when this made her unpopular with other kids. She’s always had the upper hand against her older sister Judith, except once when in a group of other girls. Both women remember this time. Now Josie has created a software, named Genizah, that captures days so that they don’t disappear, recording and saving random snippits of everyday life so that if her daughter misplaces her shoes, she simply has to replay the previous day’s recordings to find them. Everything a user does can be recorded, so that the days aren’t lost at all–they are there on your smart phone. It’s a huge success, she’s now rich and famous, and she has hired Judith to work for her. Josie married a boy that Judith was interested in, and they have one daughter, Tali, 6, whose resemblance to her mother ends at the roots of her long black hair (p 2).
Judith persuades Josie to go to Egypt to help set up a national archive in Alexandria, telling her it will be a great good-will gesture for the company. But in Egypt’s post-revolutionary chaos, Josie is kidnapped with the expectation that her multi-million dollar company will pay handsomely for her rescue. In the meantime, Judith is available to comfort Josie’s husband and mother Josie’s child. In her captivity, Josie reads and rereads A Guide for the Perplexed, a work by medieval scholar Moses Maimonides that tries to reconcile divine providence and free will, as he struggles to accept the death of his brother David.
A century earlier, Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter also traveled to Egypt from Cambridge, accompanied by elderly twin adventurers who provide a lot of the comic relief to the book. Under Jewish law, it was forbidden to destroy anything that had the name of God written on it. Scraps of paper, vellum, etc, would be kept in a room in a synagogue called a genizah until they could be given a proper burial. In a suburb of Cairo, Schechter finds a genizah filled to overflowing with the flotsam and jetsam of strangers’ lives, including several works of the medieval scholar Moses Maimonides.
All these stories intertwine and flow together. I loved the echoes of Joseph, the favored child, haunted by his brother’s jealously, sold into slavery in Egypt but in the end forgiving his brothers. I loved the look at sibling relationships throughout time, not only between Josie and Judith but between Solomon and his brother, and between Moses and his, and even the constant bickering without real irritation exhibited by the elderly twin adventurers. (I have twins myself, and I can attest–twins bicker constantly but without real rancor.) I loved the theme of doors opening and closing, in software and in life, in times past and times to come. I loved the unexpected twist at the end, as the past is rewritten and one girl is left adrift, feeling herself alone in her present situation when she has no idea how she is mirroring her own mother and aunt.
In short, I loved this book. A Guide for the Perplexed is a wonderful read that engages the mind but manages to be a fun read as well. I read the entire thing in one sitting on a long international flight, and it was perfect. This is a book I’ll keep and reread. Highly highly recommended.
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