"[An] intense, multilayered story." —Jami Attenberg, New York Times Book Review
Software prodigy Josie Ashkenazi has invented an application that records everything its users do. When she visits the Library of Alexandria as a tech consultant, she is abducted in Egypt’s postrevolutionary chaos with only a copy of the philosopher Maimonides’ famous work to anchor her—leaving her jealous sister Judith free to take over her life. A century earlier, Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter arrives in Egypt, hunting for a medieval archive hidden in a Cairo synagogue. Their stories intertwine in this spellbinding novel of how technology changes memory and how memory shapes the soul.
The latest novel from Horn (All Other Nights) is actually several books in one. One strand, a historical narrative set in 1896, depicts Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter's discovery of the Cairo Genizah, a repository of thousands of documents in an old Egyptian synagogue; while another, set in 1171, recounts how the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote The Guide for the Perplexed, a book attempting to reconcile divine providence and free will, after the drowning death of his brother David. Lastly, the novel explores sibling rivalry, taking the biblical tale of Joseph and his brothers as a foundational case study. Josephine "Josie" Ashkenazi the inventor of Genizah, a software program that comprehensively archives moments from its users' lives is encouraged by her envious sister Judith to accept a consultant position at the Library of Alexandria. Soon after Josie arrives in post Arab Spring Egypt, however, she is kidnapped. When a video appears online of Josie being hanged, Judith moves in with her sister's family, sleeping with her brother-in-law and caring for her six-year-old niece. If this sounds melodramatic, that's because it is. Worse yet, there is something profoundly unlikable about all the characters involved. Still, Horn raises intriguing questions including some of the eternal variety and others very much of this moment.
The more things change, the more they stay the same!
Parts of this book taking place in Egypt were difficult for me to read, as danger makes me uncomfortable. Those circumstances are integral to the story, however, and involve themes of sibling rivalry, jealousy, & taking “control” for power over one’s life, as well as how different people and societies process, store, and retrieve memories.
I enjoyed the parallel stories from different time periods and how these stories were interwoven. I found the ending to be poignant and sad, as it appears the lessons of a traumatic experience by a main female character were put aside.
I found the complex relationships of the various pairs of siblings interesting to compare, especially how their religious views impacted not only their experiences—but also their interpretation of them.
As someone who had saved a lot of of material evidence of my life and that of my family through documents, creative endeavors, photos, and videos, I have personally experienced the challenges trying to bring order and organization to an unruly and large “mess” of miscellaneous “stuff.” I was therefore fascinated by the “genizah” as an archeological source. If history is told through the words of the victors, the genizahs of the world tell a fuller story of lives: omitted, incompletely portrayed, or inaccurately revealed by traditional historical records.
This book has me analyzing my personal history (including relationships) and how the world not only influenced my circumstances and life experiences—but my memories of them, as well!