Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: The Book of God and Physics - A Novel of the Voynich Mystery

Written by Enrique Joven
Published by William Morrow, 2009, 347 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Dolores M. Koch

This review refers to an uncorrected proof of the novel.

What's It All About?

From the publisher's synopsis:
"Hector is a young Jesuit science teacher. He is also part of a group that, for years, has been trying to decipher the secrets of the Voynich manuscript – a mysterious book written in an unknown language and illustrated with enigmatic drawings – which first surfaced four centuries ago in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. With a cult following of amateur and professional cryptographers the world over . . . the Voynich manuscript . . . has stumped the best minds for decades. . . . When a possible key to unlocking the Voynich is discovered in Hector's church, powerful forces conspire to keep the manuscript from being decoded."

What Did I Think About It?

There really is a Voynich manuscript. I first became interested in it several years ago, after reading The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. That novel is concerned with solving the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a Renaissance text that also really exists and has baffled scholars for centuries. In my reading about the Hypnerotomachia, I came upon the Voynich – another mysterious book, written in the 15th or 16th century, by an unknown writer in a mysterious language and filled with undecipherable illustrations. The book is named after the Polish-American book-dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912. According to Wikipedia, the manuscript now resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, and a facsimile edition was published in 2005. I found both books fascinating and very much enjoyed the Caldwell-Thomason novel, so when LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program gave me the opportunity to read an advance copy of Enrique Joven's book, I was eager to get started.

From the initial synopsis of The Book of God and Physics, I was expecting something of an intellectual thriller. Sort of James Patterson with footnotes. And, to some extent, I think that's what Joven was aiming for. But if so, he missed the mark by quite a distance. There is a mystery in the book, complete with hidden passageways, secret messages, and surprise betrayals, and a tragic twist near the story's end. But those traditional features of the thriller are slowed down, and the framing story of Hector and his friends and fellow investigators John and Juana is almost completely buried by the convoluted discussions of background and research. The explorations of the Voynich's history and possible authorship are interesting in themselves, but alone, they're just not enough to hold a novel together. Joven seems mainly concerned with refuting the theories of Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder (who are authentic figures, just as their book Heavenly Intrigue really does exist), which ultimately makes for some tedious reading.

Joven relies a great deal on the device of a super-smart student in one of Hector's classes, who becomes fascinated with a part of the mystery and begins bringing Hector the results of his research. I found this just a bit tiresome; but then, I'm generally put off by child prodigies in fiction, so that may just be my own prejudices coming to the fore. Still, I think I would have been more comfortable with Hector doing his own research. Also, I thought a lot of the dialogue was stilted and not very believable. However, I have a feeling that may just be a fault of the translation and not of the author's writing (I'm always reluctant to criticize dialogue that I've read in translation).

Would I Recommend It?

Although the publishers call it a "thrilling page-turner," this is not a book in which a lot happens. If you're looking for chill-a-minute action scenes, in the manner of Dan Brown, or Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, this is probably not the book for you. A great deal of the book (a great deal) is taken up with the historical background of the Voynich manuscript, its possible authorship, and explanations of its connections with astronomy and the history of the Jesuits (at least the book is aptly titled). While I enjoyed the book enough to keep reading right to the end, I can't say I'd recommend it for everyone. It's brilliant and makes for very interesting historical reading, but action-packed it's not. In the end, I think the abundance of historical exposition simply overwhelms what began as a very intriguing idea for a novel.

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