No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, May 09, 2010

2010/39: O Jerusalem -- Laurie R. King

Five weeks earlier I had been a maturing apprentice who was moving away into another field, but the events of the last month, both at home and here in Palestine, had shaken that comfortable relationship to its core. (p. 203)
O Jerusalem is set two-thirds of the way through The Beekeeper's Apprentice, when Russell and Holmes flee England and their mysterious opponent, and end up in disguise in Palestine, investigating a series of murders which have escalated the tension in a post-war peace that is already fragile.

Accompanied by Ali and Mahmoud, two apparent Arabs who work for Mycroft -- and who Holmes claims are actually English -- Mary Russell, disguised as an Arab youth, wanders the land at the heart of her religion and her academic studies. She has to prove her worth to Ali and Mahmoud, who are initially scornful of being landed with 'a girl and an old man'. She also begins to reassess her relationship with her mentor: the state of play between them at the end of the novel is rather more textured than at the beginning.

This is a novel where Russell's theological and historical studies are of considerable importance. Whether exploring the undercity of Jerusalem or travelling roads where Samaritans, disciples and prophets have walked, Russell puts her surroundings into context, and manages to convey a sense of the precarious balance between Jew, Moslem and Arab, as well as a sketch of the political processes underway.

I couldn't help but contrast this with Mary Doria Russell's Dreamers of the Day, in which a wealthy American woman visits Egypt and Palestine, interacts with politicians and generals, and comes away changed. Laurie King's Mary Russell is immersed in the people, the culture and the politics of the Holy Land in a way that Agnes Shanklin could never be: her level of comprehension is different, her engagement whole-hearted. O Jerusalem was, for me, a more vivid and immediate depiction of setting and character, and Mary Russell's a more engaging viewpoint.

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