Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher and author of the important The Guide for the Perplexed, wrote, “You must consider, when reading this treatise, that mental perception, because connected with matter, is subject to conditions similar to those which physical perception is subject.”
That idea, the intersection of mental thought, physical sensation and the role of perception, is a good place to start in discussing Dara Horn's latest novel, A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED, which, as is obvious by the title, is indebted to the work of Maimonides. Yet it is not just the philosophy of Maimonides that Horn engages with, but also aspects of his life as well as that of another great Jewish historical figure, Solomon Schechter. She takes these two figures and combines them with the fictional character of Josie Ashkenazi, a computer genius and entrepreneur whose life is forever changed after a trip to Egypt.
"A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED is an engaging blend of historical fiction and contemporary thriller.... [it] will greatly appeal to readers looking for a unique and contemplative adventure.
Josie Ashkenazi is the creator and developer of an exciting computer program called Genizah. Named for the Jewish tradition of storing written documents instead of disposing of them, Genizah organizes all the data and information of a person's life. From passwords to images, recorded memories to scanned documents, Genizah saves everything in a virtual storage space but catalogs them in such a way as to see patterns and predict outcomes. Josie is also the sister of Judith, wife to Itamar and mother of six-year-old Tali. But her personal relationships are less successful than the business venture that made her rich.
Because Josie has always been the smart one, Judith, even though she is the older sister, feels like she was in her shadow. And Josie is often annoyed by her young daughter, who is at once quirky and difficult and totally ordinary. Her attention is mostly on Genizah, and so Judith is easily able to convince Josie to accept an invitation to post-revolution Egypt to see if the program would work for a library system in Cairo. That trip ends in disaster. Not only is Josie wary of revealing her Jewishness in Cairo, she is held accountable for her ideas by Naseen, an intelligent young librarian assigned to work with her. But her uncomfortable conversations with Naseen are nothing compared to the torture and terror she experiences when she is kidnapped and held for ransom.
Josie's story intersects in interesting ways with those of Maimonides and Schechter. We find Maimonides, in the 12th century, furthering his career by treating the asthma (an affliction with which several characters suffer) of Sultan Saladin, spending time with his younger brother, who is very different from himself and working out ideas about perception. Centuries later, Solomon Schechter, on a trip to Egypt, finds himself physically and mentally immersed in the famous Cairo genizah, which contains personal letters of Maimonides as well as other old Jewish documents and texts. He, too, must come to terms with a sibling very different from himself, and the stories of these two men mirror those of Josie and Judith, and later, Tali and her sister.
A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED is an engaging blend of historical fiction and contemporary thriller. From handwritten scrolls to high-tech programs, it examines memory, documentation and perception, referencing Jewish myth and history. It is an ambitious and philosophical novel with more than four narrative points of view, spanning more than a thousand years, and moving from America to Egypt, stopping at places in between. Perhaps challenging for readers not familiar with the Jewish concepts Horn so heavily relies on, the book is nonetheless intriguing. Josie is not a likable character, which is another challenge for readers, but because her story is so connected to other aspects of the novel and she strongly makes Horn's points, she works well as a central figure for the story.
Sometimes a bit muddled and dense, A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED will greatly appeal to readers looking for a unique and contemplative adventure.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 20, 2013
A Guide for the Perplexed