A Guide for the Perplexed

Author: Dara Horn

Review by Elizabeth Edelglass

At age 15, Dara Horn was learned and eloquent beyond her years. More than twenty years later, the same holds true.

I discovered Horn in 1993, when she was a teen and I a mother of almost-teens. Her Hadassah Magazine article about her March of the Living experience was perhaps the most mature piece of Holocaust/Israel writing I’d ever read. Eleven years later, when Horn was an accomplished novelist and I a fledgling writer, she sat on a panel that honored one of my short stories. Now, another eleven years later, Horn is one of today’s premier American Jewish fiction writers, and I am honored to review her latest novel, 2013’s A Guide for the Perplexed.

Horn’s first thee novels won the National Jewish Book Award, the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize. Like those earlier works, A Guide for the Perplexed is a braided narrative of past and present that reflects Horn’s ability to tell a compelling story along with her immense scholarship of Jewish history and text (she has a Ph.D. in comparative literature [Hebrew and Yiddish] and has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, The City University of New York, and Harvard). In this case, all strands of the braid involve sibling rivalry and reflections on the biblical story of Joseph.

In Horn’s 21st century, Josephine (Josie) Ashkenazi, brilliant inventor of Genizah—software designed to save and preserve every photo, memory, and moment of a person’s life—is coaxed by her envious sister Judith to travel to Egypt, where she is kidnapped, held hostage, and reported to the world as dead, swept up in the unfolding Arab Spring. But is she dead? And will Judith overcome her jealousy and travel to Egypt to save her sister?

This page-turning present-day narrative is interwoven with the 19th-century story of Solomon Schechter, whose brother has deserted their joint studies for a pioneering life in Palestine, while Solomon travels to Egypt to save the Cairo Genizah—almost 200,000 documents of medieval Jewish life, from sales receipts to marriage licenses to draft pages for Moses Maimonides’ philosophical treatise of the selfsame title as this novel, Guide for the Perplexed. This leads us to the 12th-century story of Moses Maimonides and his agonizing search for answers to the death of his beloved brother.

All three sets of siblings grapple with questions of past, present, and future. Can we change the past or predict the future? Can mistakes be forgotten, or forgiven? Whose memory is correct, and whose is wrong? Most importantly, where does God lie in all of this? Do we live lives of free will, or are the past, present, and future all predetermined by God?

As if that is not enough, this novel also reflects on today’s world of social media that records nearly every ordinary moment of our lives. As Solomon Schechter attempts to read every crumbling scrap saved from the Cairo Genizah, his helpers, the (historically true) twin sisters Margaret and Agnes point out: “But just consider how much material there will be for historians in the future, now that we have printing presses… The past will become a bottomless pit. In that kind of archive, one can find anything one wishes to find.” In the end, our present and our future come down to how we choose to remember the past.

As a reader, I found myself drawn more to the historical stories of Schechter and Maimonides than to Josie’s 21st-century life, but other reviewers have said the opposite. In reading, as in life, we choose what we will remember, but all readers will find something to remember from this and all of Dara Horn’s smart novels.

Elizabeth Edelglass has recently published short fiction in Tablet, JewishFiction.net, Lilith, and The Ilanot Review. Retired Director of the Jewish Community Library of Greater New Haven, she is at work on a collection of linked stories and two novels.

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