West Hills Press: Atlanta, GA
The “McGuffin” in Linda Lambert’s entertaining novel is a small ancient codex accidentally discovered by anthropologist Justine Jenner in the aftermath of an earthquake that nearly buries her in the crypt behind historic St. Sergius church in Old Cairo. Exhaustive paleographic and textual analysis plus a number of scientific dating methodologies strongly suggest that it is the personal diary of Mary, the mother of Jesus, covering the period when the Holy Family fled Palestine and the murderous intents of King Herod. The Christian (Coptic) belief is that the family of Mary and Joseph stayed in Egypt (in the cave that is now the crypt of St. Sergius) for a brief period of time while the Islamic belief is that they stayed in Cairo (then called Babylon) for up to seven or eight years. The codex contains assertions that put in question many of the basic tenets of both Christianity and Islam—and Justine quickly learns the deadly dangers that can result when politics and religion become entwined in the seething cauldron that is the contemporary Middle East.
The novel opens with Justine, newly-minted Ph.D. and daughter of renowned American archaeologist Morgan Jenner and his estranged, strong-willed Egyptian wife Lucrezia, arriving in Cairo to undertake her first project as an anthropologist: observing and studying the students and teachers of a UNESCO-sponsored Community Schools for Girls project centered in the greater Cairo area.
The project director, Nadia Mansour, sponsors a welcoming soiree for Justine aboard a felucca anchored along the Nile and among the guests are Amir El Shabry, an archaeologist working at the Egyptian Museum and Mohammed Shalaby, the owner of a computer sales and repair store in nearby Naser City.
These two gentlemen, plus Amir’s grandfather, scholar Ibrahim El Shabry who had mentored Justine’s father; Nasser Khalid, who identifies himself as a former student of Morgan Jenner; Amir’s brother Zachariah, who has recently abandoned his Coptic faith for the radicalized Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Andrea LeMartin, an acclaimed French linguist, all play important roles in Justine’s quest to unlock the secrets of the codex she stumbled upon in the ruins of the earthquake-damaged crypt. The danger implicit in such investigations become abundantly clear when Justine is first threatened while touring the Khan el Khalili bazaar, then she and Andrea are nearly killed when run off the road between Alexandria and Cairo, and finally when Justine is kidnapped off the streets of Cairo by an Islamist militant working in concert with a Coptic priest! Even her whirlwind romance with the handsome Nasser Khalid seems fraught with mystery and intrigue as she comes to realize the hard lesson that in Cairo, nothing is as it seems!
Author Lambert’s innovative plot devices are complemented by a talent for descriptive renderings of Cairo and Alexandria, evocative of the sights, smells and sounds of those ancient cities. She also demonstrates an understanding of the social, political and religious stresses constantly at work in contemporary Egypt—and is quite prescient when speculating upon the potential strength and appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood should Mubarak fall, as this book was written sometime before the “Arab Spring.”
These strengths are unfortunately off-set by a tendency towards stiff and didactic dialogue that reads more like an extended quote from a monograph on Mideast politics and culture than the conversation among and between friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
Three trowels for The Cairo Codex.