The question of genre – what kind of a book is it? – frequently drives new writers crazy. Sometimes it’s not easy to answer even for those of us who have been at this for a while.
Personally, as a reader, once I start a book that draws me in, that hopefully I enjoy, maybe even love, I could care less what label the publisher has chosen, how the book business is marketing the title, or even the genre stamped on the spine if it’s a paperback. But as a writer I admit, the whole business sometimes looms large. Particularly with Bristol House. From the first day I started working on this book – four years ago now – I knew a lot of publishing people and many readers would see it as fantasy. How can it be anything else since it features two ghosts who speak to the present from the past? Nonetheless, that’s not what I intended it to be. Rather, I see it as a speculation.
“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.” That’s T.S. Eliot in a poem called Burnt Norton. It was always in my mind that I was writing about the nature of time.
What if the mystery implicit in God’s answer to Moses when Moses asks to be told the divine name – “I am who am.” – is in a way its own solution? The need to label things, to have everything be clear and go in a straight-line progression, maybe that’s all man-made nonsense.
And what about Einstein’s theory of time as a river, with everything present simultaneously, but past and future hidden around bends that lie behind and ahead of us?
What if time is just something we made up, a kind of crutch? Merely a prelude to eternity.
How do we wrap our heads around that?
Some people insist with absolute certainty that such speculation is absurd. There are no ghosts, there is no life after life, time does not bend. None of it can possibly be true. If you can’t see it or touch it or hear it or smell it or taste it, it does not exist. End of story.
Well, that’s not the end of this story. And if that’s what you believe – if you’re absolutely sure that death is death and nothing follows – this is probably not a book for you. But if, like most of us, you go back and forth, sometimes more and sometimes less sure of what you believe, if you live with the fact that your doubts and what you have of belief are all jumbled up together, if you’re interested in how sometimes preposterous-seeming beliefs motivate others to do truly heroic things, I think my story – which touches down on Einstein’s river and attempts to incorporate Eliot’s words charged with meaning – will resonate with you.
This is not, I have to add, a religious book, despite the fact that it features two rabbis, a Dominican priest, a Carthusian monk, and a lot about the pervasive horror of anti-Semitism across the centuries. In the section that takes part in modern London, neither Annie the American, nor Geoff the Englishman is a practicing anything. But both are seekers of truth, and both have a big investment in righting old wrongs.
In the part of the book that takes place in the time of Henry VIII even the monks scheme and lie, and the goldsmith persecuted for simply being a Jew sometimes behaves like a tyrant. Together they sow the seeds of a plot that six hundred years later will threaten the lives of Annie and Geoff and many others. And they also plant the clues for its unraveling. Because, after all, what is time? And can we ever escape the burden of old sins?
Yes, this story says, we can. In the end everything moves toward the light, and forgiveness is always possible as long as we first learn to forgive ourselves.