Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: March 13th 2018
Release Date: Spiegel & Grau
My Rating: 5 Cups
Source: Penguin Random House
Blurb (from Goodreads):
In this spellbinding novel, a young man journeys from California to Cairo to unravel centuries-old family secrets.*Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review. This does not influence my rating or the content of my review in any way.
Joseph, a literature student at Berkeley, is the son of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. One day, a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep, pulling him into a mesmerizing adventure to uncover the tangled history that binds the two sides of his family. For generations, the men of the al-Raqb family have served as watchmen of the storied Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, built at the site where the infant Moses was taken from the Nile. Joseph learns of his ancestor Ali, a Muslim orphan who nearly a thousand years earlier was entrusted as the first watchman of the synagogue and became enchanted by its legendary--perhaps magical--Ezra Scroll. The story of Joseph's family is entwined with that of the British twin sisters Agnes and Margaret, who in 1897 depart their hallowed Cambridge halls on a mission to rescue sacred texts that have begun to disappear from the synagogue.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a moving page-turner of a novel from acclaimed storyteller Michael David Lukas. This tightly woven multigenerational tale illuminates the tensions that have torn communities apart and the unlikely forces--potent magic, forbidden love--that boldly attempt to bridge that divide.
Praise for The Last Watchman of Old Cairo
"A beautiful, richly textured novel, ambitious and delicately crafted, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is both a coming-of-age story and a family history, a wide-ranging book about fathers and sons, religion, magic, love, and the essence of storytelling. This book is a joy."--Rabih Alameddine, author of the National Book Award finalist An Unnecessary Woman
This is probably the most powerful book I've read in a long time, and it's definitely one of those books that will end up on my Recommended Books list.
The Last Watchman Of Old Cairo is a story about culture and history, and the people that are participating in making and protecting them. The story is told from three different story-lines: the first one tells the story of Ali, a Muslim boy who becomes the first watchman of the Ibn-Ezra synagogue in old Cairo; the second one tells the story of twins Agnes and Margaret Smith and how they retrieve some of the documents from the synagogue back in the 1800s; the last one tells the story of Joseph, a young man on a quest to understand his late father and, ultimately, himself. At first I had a hard time navigating the three story lines. Although it was clear what the connecting thread was, I wanted to stay more in one story line than in the other. When I got used to the pace and to the abrupt change in scenery, I found it easier to just let the story take me wherever it was going to take me. And let me tell you, what a journey.
The thing I liked most about this book was that we get to see how different moments in time define the same artifact: in Ali's time magic was the way to describe one of the most important documents in the Geniza, while the sisters saw it as an important piece of history, and in Joseph's time it was thought of as something forgotten and almost a part of a myth more than reality. I was reminded about my love of history while reading the book, especially since the story at one point, through Ali's eyes, shows us a piece of history as it was being made, which I found fascinating.
We also get to see how one's choices influence a child's life. On his quest to understand the parcel he received after his father's death, Joseph discovers more about his parents' relationship, how they met, how they fell in love, why they didn't stay together, and at one point I really wondered how his life would have looked like had he been raised by his father or by both his parents. Would he have grown up to become the next watchman of the Ibn-Ezra Synagogue? Would he have had the mission to protect its secrets? In a way though, he did end up being a sort of watchman for the documents retrieved by the twins from the synagogue so many years ago, so I guess in the end his life did lead him down that road, just slightly different than the one Ali's descendants had to navigate for centuries.
The pace is definitely slower than what I normally read, but the story kind of mesmerized me and I lost myself into it, into stories of duty, forgiveness, love, and culture. I absolutely loved this story and I definitely recommend it.