Contemporary, Fiction, Historical Fiction

A Guide for the Perplexed

Cover image for A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Hornby Dara Horn

ISBN 978-0-393-06489-6

“She watched as Itamar winced again at Josie’s name. There was something pleasant about his flinching, Judith noticed, a warmth in seeing him crumple. It flowed through her like a wave of hot water in a bath.”

Josie Ashkenazi is the creator of a revolutionary software program, called Genizah, which records the daily activities of its users, creating a self-sorting digital memory bank. The Genizah software is named after the Cairo Genizah, a repository of Jewish documents discovered in an Egyptian synagogue in the late 1800s which included writing by Mosheh ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or Rambam, author of A Guide for the Perplexed, from which this novel takes its name. When Josie is offered a consulting gig at the new Library of Alexandria, her jealous older sister Judith persuades her to take the opportunity, despite the civil unrest plaguing Egypt. Judith dreams of three weeks out from under the shadow of her younger sister, who she works for, but when Josie is kidnapped and held for ransom, Judith slips into her life, trying to claim Josie’s husband and daughter for her own. Josie and Judith’s story of sibling rivalry runs parallel to the story of Solomon Schechter, who was one of the early scholars who studied the contents of the Cairo Genizah. Estranged from his own twin brother, his study of the Genizah papers brings him into contact with twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, who are so close they have never lived apart. Earlier still, Mosheh is serving as a doctor to the royal court of Egypt, and sends his own brother, David, on a dangerous trip to Asia in search of an herb that may be able to cure his patient’s asthma. All these stories of sibling rivalry revolve around the biblical story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers.

Dara Horn’s ambitious family drama is introspective and philosophical, delving deeply into philosophy and theology as it unpacks sibling relationships, and questions the nature of memory, particularly examining the differences between the biological and the digital. The things people choose to remember and forget are telling, and the memories held in a digital Genizah sometimes differ sharply from the way people choose to remember an event. Horn’s beautiful prose and surreal dream sequences are counterpointed but the brutality and urgency of Josie’s captivity, and interspersed with dense theological passages from the writing of Maimonides. The imagery is clever and detailed, though all of these factors taken together make for some extremely slow pacing. The multiple narratives slowly build on one another, layer upon layer. Ultimately, though the kidnapping triggers the events of the story set in the present day, this is a book more for those looking for introspection and philosophy than a mystery or thriller. The plot is secondary to the characters, and to Horn’s inquiry into the nature of the human mind.

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