Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book Review: "Adam & Eve" by Sena Jeter Naslund

If I had to describe this book in only one word, it would be: dazzling.

The writing is lyrical, poetic. Haunting in places. Glorious in others. The style and the narrator's voice are totally appropriate to, and strong enough to handle, its lofty themes and vast scale. The beauty of the alternate version of the Priestly prologue to the book of Genesis matches that of the original. I loved how at several places -- starting on the very first page --, she writes what appears to be nonsense. Then she elaborates and explains until the meaning breaks through. Several times she caught me scanning (which I think more and more readers do these days; it seems to me a good writer will intentionally add speed bumps along the way), and sent me backwards a few pages to see if I had misunderstood something.  The story is about a journey of adventure. Reading it is an adventure, too.

The characters are interesting. They may be a little sketchy (not unlike the cave drawings that play a central role in the story), but this is not a character driven story. The characters are just players in a bigger story, so their own back-story and personalities are more or less insignificant. At one point, the main character comments that places are more important than people. Another character disagrees, but I have the sense that the writer would say that Story is most important of all. Even so, the principal characters are engaging and sympathetic enough for the reader to care about them, and join in their adventures.

The bad guys are bad enough to be believable, but they are not psychopaths or crazed killers. They are ordinary religious fanatics, taken to the logical extreme. I thought that was really cool, especially after reading so many books in the last year which featured crazed killers who torture and maim for the hell of it. These guys were prepared to kill for their religion, but I had the impression that they wouldn't necessarily enjoy it. They were villains who were not necessarily bad people. I thought that was an interesting twist.

The plot is about the efforts of a small group of people who are trying to protect a flash drive containing scientific proof of extraterrestrial life and an ancient codex offering an alternative version to the biblical creation story. The bad guys are a secret society made up of fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Muslims who want to retain the primacy of the biblical creation story, which places humans at the apex of created things: in the image and likeness of God.  They want to suppress knowledge of life on other planets or alternate Creation Myths. They want to destroy both the flash drive and the codex.

The story ranges from Paris to Eden and war-ravaged Iraq, to the South of France and Africa, and it peers into outer space, as well. The canvas is positively Sistine: all of Creation.

The story focuses on the struggles between science and religion that have raged since Western religion was invented. It also makes clear that religious truth and scientific knowledge evolve and they may mean different things to different people. Religious fundamentalists or non-religious people who cling to the security of religious "tradition" or scientific understanding handed to them by others are setting themselves up for suffering. The story insists that everything changes constantly, including scientific and religious understanding. You can't look back. "Do not cling to me." (That quotation does not appear in the book, but for me it hung in the background whispering softly on every page.)

This may make the book sound preachy and overly intellectual. It is not. Somehow, Naslund managed to treat lofty and highly controversial topics respectfully. The plot races along like a detective novel. The story is fast-paced and engaging enough that it could be read just for fun. On the other hand, it could also be read slowly, savoring the beauty of the writing and the grandeur of the ideas. (The next time I read it, I'm going to do that. This time I read the whole thing in two sittings.)

I borrowed this book from the library. I am going to buy it at some point so I can read it again. And again.

The next time I go to the library, I'm going to get more books by this author. In the meantime, I'm going to just sit here and bask in the afterglow of a great read. Dazzled.

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