28 February 2014
THE ORPHEUS DESCENT by Tom Harper
The second book I’ve chosen to review for this month is THE ORPHEUS DESCENT by Tom Harper. The reason I’ve chosen it is fairly simple – Tom and I are fellow members of York Authors and we’re putting on a joint event at York Literature Festival in a couple of weeks time so I thought it might be a good idea to read his book before I went. I’m glad I did as it’s re-ignited my interest in philosophy, an area I’ve often meant to pursue.
Tom has obviously studied it in great depth and his knowledge of the subject shines through. Although don’t let that lure you into thinking this is a dry and dusty academic tome – far from it, it’s actually a fast-paced thriller set in two different eras, subtly combining past and present in what is commonly referred to as a ‘time-slip’ novel.
The premise is also quite simple. In the modern-day present, archaeologist Lily Barnes has unearthed a golden tablet. It’s one of a series, charting the route to the afterlife. The thing about this one is it actually specifies how to get there. Then she disappears, along with the tablet itself. Husband Jonah sets out to find her.
In the ancient past, philosopher Plato is on his way to Italy to find his friend Agathon. But Agathon has disappeared - and guess what? He seems to have found a golden tablet. Plato follows in his footsteps and becomes convinced that by doing so he can unlock the mysteries of the universe.
So the stage is set for these separate but related stories to intertwine. The problem for the author is how to drive the narrative forward to achieve a cohesive whole. The way he does it is by matching them stride for stride, so Jonah’s search for his wife is paced almost identically in parallel with Plato’s quest for wisdom. In the end (no spoiler alert needed, I assure you) we come to believe that these are much the same ie. love can be found in truth and truth can be found in love. Neither of these things can ever die - which is precisely the ‘immortality’ promised by the tablets. Our bodies may perish but our souls go marching on – or something like that. As I intimated earlier, I’m no philosopher so I hope I’ve got that right – I’ll check it out with Tom prior to our event.
The point is, you don’t need to be a philosopher to enjoy the book - THE ORPHEUS DESCENT stands as a good adventure story in its own right. I’m an engineer by training rather than an out and out scientist so I’ve always taken a practical view of the world rather than a purely theoretical one. That means that in the beginning I naturally sided with Jonah and his quest for his real wife instead of Plato and his search for an intangible idea. But as the book progressed I began to realise that of the two main protagonists, Plato is perhaps the more practical as he is prepared to compromise some of his principles in order to attain his objective. On the other hand, Jonah is blinded by love and will stop at nothing to get Lily back. For me, this makes Plato the more interesting character and although both men are ready to sacrifice their lives to get what they want, by the end of the book I found myself leaning toward the philosopher’s story rather than that of the husband.
Jonah’s tale is akin to a Dan Brown thriller. We’ve read these before but they keep us turning the pages. And it’s by turning the pages that we get to learn something of the philosophy of Plato. This has to be a win-win situation. I began by saying that you shouldn’t be lured into thinking this is a dry and dusty academic tome. What you should do is be lured into thinking – and go and read some philosophy. I know I will be and I have Tom Harper to thank for that. I look forward to working with him.