Please judge this book by its cover…………..
It may seem wrong to begin a book review by spending time reviewing the physical book itself, rather than its content. After all, the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is in common parlance.
Except, of course, when ‘judging a book by its cover’ is a perfect illustration of the contents. As it is here. Dear would be reader, I really urge you to pay the extra pennies and make space on your bookshelves for this decidedly, but deceptively, slim tome, rather than go for the Kindle download. Firstly, you will have one of the most beautiful, alluring, evocative cover images I have seen for a long while. Like Kalfus’ meticulously crafted language, the carefully assembled juxtaposition of images will snag away at your subconscious. Much more is going on than you will initially see. As befits a book where Victorian engineering – where many ideas were held inside those intrinsic bold construction projects – is a major grounding and springboard, we have a beautiful, weighty, piece of craft. There are the beautiful geometrical illustrations. The pages are satisfyingly thick, a pleasure to turn, there is a sensory delight (and a subtext of the sensuous is part of Kalfus’ writing) The binding has been done in such a way that rather than lying flat across, it forms a little ridged trench along the long edge – and as much of the book is precisely about a fantastic engineering project in the Egyptian desert – the building of an enormous equilateral triangle of trench – this is like the book itself manifesting the construction! Sadly at the moment the book only seems available in the UK on Kindle
Ken Kalfus has written a book dense with ideas, every word, it feels, carefully chosen and slotted into place. You could, easily, race through pursuing a great story – the construction of a Victorian engineering feat in order to make contact with sentient beings on Mars. This is, if you want, an easy and enjoyable read, you won’t feel as if you have to work enormously hard to understand what the author is saying. It is not in the least bit one of those magnificent literary reads which you know ARE excellent, but need very dense study to yield up their riches.
Except – somehow it is, and what Kalfus does (like the picture on the cover) is give you something immediately arresting to respond to, but, but, and, and – if you make yourself pace yourself – well, he is hurling thunderbolts of ideas at you, often on the turn of a sentence.
Think of a modern day H.G. Wells; like Wells more is always going on than just a very exciting story about the edges of science and the stars. Except that the lengthier fuller construction of Victorian writers has been pared down. Kalfus’ sentences are compact, short, and in some ways are more like poetry – that ability to make one word hold the weight of others.
To avoid drivelling on endlessly (me, not Kalfus, who is economy personified) here is an early example:
An Egyptian royal band in full military dress played the anthem of each participating nation, as well as selections from Bizet and Offenbach, the horns glaring under the morning, then noonday, then afternoon sun.
It was that choice of horns glaring – the obvious would have probably been shining, or flashing, or sparkling – but glaring not only suggests and makes the reader feel, the hurt of the light, but contains the other thing horns do – blare! So one word suggests assaults on both the eyes and the ears.
To try to and get a bit more Kalfus succinct – what you have here is an enthralling story, a novel crammed full of ideas – evolution, maths and sacred geometry as a language, beings from outer space, class, race and sexual politics, Victorian empire building, human hubris, all wrapped up in compact yet playful, light touch writing…….there were a couple of points I shouted out loud with delight……but can’t say why, to avoid spoilers…..oh, just get the book!
I am extremely grateful to the publishers, Bloomsbury, for making a copy available to review.
And probably even more grateful to fellow reviewer FictionFan for once again alerting me to a book that I needed to read – here is her review
And as for that cover, it is the stuff of dreams, a melancholic, sorrowing, beautiful surreal juxtaposition suggesting layers upon layers of poetic meaning……….oh, JUST GET THE BOOK! (and read it, of course!)