An Imperfect Lens
By Anne Roiphe
Shaye Areheart Books,
304 pages, $25.
* * *
Disease, horrifying as it can be in real life, usually makes for a good read — gripping, intense, fearful and always entertaining. Veteran novelist Anne Roiphe’s latest book, “An Imperfect Lens,” is a riveting work of historical fiction, taking the reader back to Alexandria, Egypt, in the 1880s, in the midst of a cholera outbreak. Though set in a different time and age, Roiphe’s exploration of how society responds to a public health crisis still feels “ripped from the headlines,” perfectly timed for today’s anxieties about bird flu and bioterrorism.
The story follows a team of French scientists, dispatched by the famous Louis Pasteur, as they arrive on the scene to try to discover the cause of — and thus the cure for — cholera. In something of a duel, though, a famous German microbiologist, Dr. Robert Koch, is also in town with the same purpose. And so, a nationalistic contest for scientific glory ensues; if that’s not enough, Roiphe adds a compelling love story to complete her fictional picture.
The novel begins at a slow pace, but the slowness functions as an effective form of suspense, as we see the scientists hit dead end after dead end in the lab, but drive on with their research in the careful and deliberate manner of science — all while the disease continues its rampage of Alexandria. Roiphe describes vividly choleric death after death, in excruciating and very painful detail. But she also zooms out, sometimes several levels, from the sick person and the helpless onlookers who witness cholera deaths to the diabolical movement through the city of the cholera microbe, which survives unobserved in water until it can latch on to an unsuspecting human host.
Still, if readers choose this book simply to garner insight on the topic of uncontrollable epidemics, they’ll miss Roiphe’s far more complex story. Cholera is not the only villain of “An Imperfect Lens.” There is the rivalry between the French and the German scientists and, even more shadowy, the antisemitism of the British soldiers who occupied Alexandria at the time — and who, in Roiphe’s story, target the Jewish Dr. Abraham Malina and his family. Malina’s daughter, Este, is fascinated by the methodical curiosity of the scientists’ work — and eventually develops romantic feelings for one of the scientists.
The greatest strength of Roiphe’s storytelling is that it manages to meticulously weave together the main narrative of the novel — about the ravages of a cholera epidemic and the frantic search for a cure — with the inescapable feeling that Jews lived in a world that was entirely unsafe for them. Both are omnipresent dangers — and both have those who would deny their urgency, as well as those who are hyper-aware of their menaces. By conflating the two, Roiphe turns the screws slowly and deliberately; by the end of the novel, cholera’s power as a metaphor for something larger becomes frighteningly clear. The disease was an unwelcome guest in Egypt in the 1880s, as were Jews. There were those who saw Jews as invaders of decent society, conspirators to undermine the mainstream. Some of these people went to great lengths to rid themselves of the Jewish presence, even as the scientists dissected and examined, trying to rid themselves of the infecting cholera. Through the lenses of religion, politics, love and science, imperfect as each may be, Roiphe leaves us heartbroken and relieved, curious and afraid — and thoroughly entertained.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Mass.