It is the view of every generation that they live in uncertain times, and the present era is no exception. In choosing the practice of alchemy, the science and art of transformation, as a central theme of his first novel, journalist Jon Fasman seems intent on showing us how slippery and perhaps even illusory the truths and certainty we search for may be.

Reading The Geographer's Library is like stepping into a sepia-toned daguerreotype: the past here holds all the clues. The novel's narrator is Paul Tomm, a young, sometimes painfully naive cub reporter coasting along at a weekly newspaper in a sleepy New England town. When a professor at his alma mater dies in mysterious circumstances, the reporter's research for a routine obituary leads him into an unimaginably poisonous labyrinth.

This mystery's path is littered with forged passports, ghastly murders, discarded identities and newly minted lives. The present-day narrative is interspersed with chapters telling the forgotten history of various occult objects: how they were lost, scattered and once again collected (to turn up in Connecticut), often at the cost of human lives. The purpose of this collection is nothing less than the ultimate goal of alchemy: to discover the secret of life.

The story spans nine centuries and several continents, returning again and again to the vast expanses of Central Asia and the turbulence left in the wake of the crumbled Soviet Union. The geographer of the title was banished from none other than Baghdad, and the novel's visits to places currently in the public eye add to its intrigue. Ultimately, although the novel does not follow Paul's growth into the next stage of his life, we are left with the thought that it is the process of transformation itself that counts.

Jehanne Moharram grew up in the Middle East and now writes from Virginia.

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