Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

"A guide for the perplexed" by Dara Horn (Norton, 2015)

It's set partly in modern USA. Josie, 26, (with a mother who has early onset dementia, and a father who'd left to become a stricter Jew) is a software whizzkid whose program, Genizah, logs text, audio and graphics experienced by a person, classifying and linking material to make querying and prediction easier. It seeks patterns. There's a social component to it and an augmented reality feature so ""instead of seeing what's around you now, you can see what used to be there" (p.55). She had asthma.

She goes to Egypt (for reasons never convincingly explained) and is kidnapped. She's kept in a room with a sarcophagus - in the City of the Dead? Her death is faked and broadcast. "What is objective-C?" doesn't seem the kind of question the captor would ask, though the answer is factually correct. She's made to work on her software to create a malware variant. While doing so she adds test data about her daughter - "When you have enough material to work with, you can almost build an entire person out of this. It's like bringing someone back to life" (p.168). Her captor makes her erase it, but asks for her to set a similar thing up about his murdered son, Musa (who loved puzzles, and seemed to be something of a prodigy). She starts it. She manages to TXT out and is punished. On p.206 she refuses to complete the "Genizah of Musa". That she spends time reading an old text, "A guide for the perplexed", pondering about mumbo-jumbo like the nature of Evil detracts from the realism, but aids the plot.

Meanwhile her older but much less clever sister, Judith, helps Josie's husband (grieving) and daughter Tali, (6 years old and strange. An asthma sufferer). When Judith gets the TXT she does nothing about it. Nor does she delete it! She gets found out and decides to go to Egypt. She finds Josie, who escapes. But Judith dies. Josie's last words to Judith were "I forgive you" (p.304). It's unclear why the captor's wife takes such a risk. It's surprising that the captor doesn't have people watching over his house. I'd assumed the old woman was really Josie.

In another thread it's 1896 in Cambridge (UK). Schechter (46 years old; a male identical twin who suffered from asthma) meets a pair of identical twin widows, (one of them who hates rhymed prose), all interested in old middle-East texts. "Every synagogue has a storeroom in it called a genizah - a hiding place," Schechter said. "A place for keeping damaged books and papers that contain the name of God" (p.29). He travels to Egypt and brings back boxes of scraps from the genizah. I liked his conversation with the Grand Rabbi of Cairo.

In chapter 9 we slip back to 1171. We meet David, younger brother of Mosheh ben Maimon (physician, scholar, and writer of rhymed prose). Mosheh looks after a Sultan who has asthma. Moshen is writing "A guide for the perplexed". He thinks that "forgiveness is only possible when one is able to control the past ... the way we remember the past" (p.254). Mosheh has a vision of the port as layers of scenes from the past (like augmented reality!). He hears his little niece -

"Maybe Abba is going away to visit all the days from last year," Mosheh overheard her saying to her mother one evening. "Are the years that already happened in a place a person can go?"
"No, my love." David's wife had told her.
"Because we don't have a map?

When he hears that his brother has died he throws documents into the genizah.

At the end of the novel we're following Tali's viewpoint. It's 8 years after the kidnap. She now has a younger, clever sister and isn't enjoying it. Sibling rivalry has been a theme throughout.


Parallels and connections abound. Many seem gratuitous to me, damaging believability and making the writing kludgey in places (e.g. in the dialogue quoted above). Having threads in three time-zones seems wasteful. In the end I decided the best way of reading the novel was to map the connections rather than care about the characters.

Doors, genizah

There are lots of doors to memories - "A door opened in Judith's memory" (p.105). The extended hallucination on p.36 sounds especially contrived - "As she drifted into dream, she saw something extraordinary: instead of dirt, there appeared, on the tall round walls of the pit, hundreds and hundreds of doors". The Genizah program uses a door metaphor.

The genizah theme is picked up later, figuratively - "[Judith] had just begun to see into Itamar, to discover the hidden vault within him" (p.215)


Itamar says "My father came from the melah in Marrakesh ... Salt the word meant ... the Jewish ghettos" (p.188). Not long later salt is mentioned again. I don't know why.

  • "Salt burned her, blinded her" (p.202)
  • "For a long time he stood still, his body a pillar of salt pressed against the wall" (p.227)


Judith had once left Josie in a pit. Later,

  • "No one had ever looked at her like that before, except for Josie, reaching up from the pit" (p.215)
  • "she ... tumbled blissfully down into a deep pit of unremembered dreams" (p.217)

Free will

"Nasreen was right: it was impossible to control the future. But it was possible to control the past" (p.309). It's an old idea, much exploited by dictatorships - and religions. There's discussion of blame, responsibility, predetermination, etc.


There's mention of how some versions of the Bible don't include Christ's Resurrection; how people can be recreated from texts. On p.324 Agnes and Margaret say they tried it to recreate their mother from old texts. Schechter revives the memory of Mosheh in a similar way. Before then several others did similar things. And of course Josie seems to rise from the dead.

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