Like other novels by the talented Dara Horn, this book has layers upon layers that challenge the reader intellectually without pulling you away from the story.
This book is, on one level, a retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph, who was sold into bondage in Egypt by his jealous brothers. If you haven’t read that story in a while, I won’t mention many more parallels, lest it be spoilery. But in a nice twist, rather than Joseph, we have a story about Josephine (or “Josie”), and her envious sister Judith. At Judith’s encouragement, Josie leaves her husband and young daughter behind to travel to Egypt, and there she is kidnapped by revolutionaries.
It is also a story about memory and the gates of perception. What becomes our sharpest memories about ourselves and others, and how does that choice or phenomenon affect our interaction with the present and the future?
Tying these two themes together are two other themes. (Horn is always complex, making the title of this book sort of a double entendre!). One theme is a fictional retelling of the historical discovery of the Genizah in Cairo. A Genizah is a repository of memories: in the Jewish religion, any object inscribed with the name of God cannot be destroyed, so synagogues designate rooms as repositories for marred, worn, or otherwise damaged documents they could no longer use. This storeroom is known as a Genizah, or “hiding place.”
Josie has created a computer program to store memories which she calls Genizah. It has been wildly successful. It takes any input – including documents, notes, pictures, and videos – and categorizes them, putting them behind visual “doors”. The more labels or categories one adds to the data, the better the program can sort and retrieve any memories or ideas. Then it can generate patterns so you can see persistent behaviors and themes and perhaps even predict future outcomes. And if we can save the past, and “recreate” people from these memories, haven’t we in some senses “resurrected” them from the dead? And what about the converse: is Hell just oblivion? Is that what we all really fear?
All of this is echoed in the fourth theme, the great 12th Century work of philosophy by the Jewish scholar Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed. Because of his adaptation of Aristotelian thought to Biblical faith, Maimonides influenced a number of scholars who came after him, including the noted Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas.
In the [original] Guide for the Perplexed, a copy of which was [actually] discovered in the Cairo Genizah, Maimonides considers the reconciliation of ideas about God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence with (a) the problem of evil in the world, and (b) whether or not this could mean that mankind has free will. As Judith Plaskow (Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College) once wrote, the most salient existential dilemma is not how a supposedly good and omnipotent God would permit evil in the world, because we cannot know the answer. Rather, she suggests, a better question is how, given the reality of evil, we deal with it. And how then do we justify faith or lack of faith? What stories do we tell ourselves? These issues become critically important to Josie after she is kidnapped in Cairo, and because she has with her a copy of the Maimonides work, it helps her understand her fate.
Evaluation: I told you there are four basic themes, but actually there are others as well. There are contemporary (or perhaps, more accurately, timeless) ideas explored about marriage and parenting and sibling rivalry, for example. Horn incorporates so many clever layers into this story that it would take a book of my own to explicate them all. If you like intelligent fiction; fiction that makes you think about religious, philosophical, political, technical, and personal issues and how they intersect, Dara Horn is one of the best authors I know who makes this happen. In addition, the story itself, without any layers or higher meaning at all, is a good one; one that is thought-provoking enough on its own to provide endless conversation for a book club or with a reading partner.
Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2013