Friday, September 4, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Unbounded Night by Mitchell James Kaplan

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I’ve been waiting for another novel by Mitchell James Kaplan since reading the superb By Fire, By Water, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to review Into the Unbounded Night.

Set in the time of early Christianity, the time of Nero and Vespasian, the Great Fire in Rome, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, this novel incorporates a lot of history and a lot of diverse religious thought.

There are numerous characters whose lives we follow. The readily recognizable historical figures (Paul, Stephen, Luke, Vespasian, Poppaea, Nero) have only walk-on roles but they influence the protagonists in ways large and small. And they ground the reader in the time period. The multiple protagonists are not the larger-than-life people of history but the “common” people.

First, we meet Aislin, a young Briton, who survived the massacre of her people by the Romans. Steeped in the belief system of her world, Aislin makes her way to Rome for one purpose, vengeance. Overwhelmed by what she finds there, she struggles to survive and to understand the new world. Inadvertently, she achieves some of the vengeance she sought. 

Another main character is Yohanan, a Pharisee in Jerusalem, dedicated to study of Jewish tradition and to peace. He’s caught up in a time of Roman occupation and civil unrest that upend his life but the violence and personal loss cannot change his fundamental beliefs.

The reader watches these characters and others grow up and grow old. Or die. Many of the characters die, often brutally, which got to be a bit much. Over time, they all interconnect. It was interesting to see how disparate lives can intertwine and influence each other; however, it was also emotionally distancing. As a reader I felt that I was skirting over the surface of their lives rather than being drawn into them.

Kaplan writes beautifully. This is a deeply meditative novel infused with questions about life, religion, death, and sin. It’s a hard novel to read when the world seems to be falling apart yet again, but there is something hopeful in the timelessness of the struggle and the unanswerableness of the questions.

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