Many years ago, my literary agent at the time invited me to a party in Cambridge at the home of "Alice Hoffman," whose work he also handled. I put her name in quotes because she was already a phenom and I was still a long year away from seeing a book with my name on it in print. Memories of that party have stayed with me over the years, including a conversation I had with Alice that night. In retrospect, it was really nothing extraordinary but as a young writer in the company of another young writer who'd already made a mark, what she said left an indelible memory such that I can even quote it today. But I never read her work.
Then serendipitously, a friend who occasionally sends a note to someone saying "meet my friend, Jessica" sent such a note to Alice last week. In the volley of emails that preceded it, I'd mentioned that I was reading People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks's new novel about the Sarajevo haggadah, the order of service for Passover, that survived for centuries even as the Jews it belonged to did not. Alice replied a short while later, saying that if I were interested in the Inquisition, I might want to read her book, Incantation.
Which I just finished and which I implore you to read. It's short, gorgeous, gripping, grotesque, and, in large measure, true. Not true in the way that the characters were historical figures but true in the way that evil sweeps through cultures, insanely, burning books and bodies and believers of the wrong faith. The intimacy of young girls, inseparable friends, smashed by jealousy and betrayal; sudden immutable love; ancient rituals practiced in secret; the genesis of genocide; and what would otherwise be called magic but instead is deep reverence for the beauty of the natural world and its ability to transport us even in moments without any light to luminous higher realms ... all this in 150 pages, beginning with what must be one of the strongest openings in the history of the novel:
If every life is a river, then it's little wonder that we do not even notice the changes that occur until we are far out in the darkest sea. One day you look around and nothing is familiar, not even your own face.
My name once meant daughter, granddaughter, friend, sister, beloved. Now those words mean only what their letters spell out: Star in the night sky. Truth in the darkness.
I have crossed over to a place where I never thought I'd be. I am someone I would have never imagined. A secret. A dream. I am this, body and soul. Burn me. Drown me. Tell me lies. I will still be who I am.
Thank you, Alice. Now on to more of your work. And seriously, friends. Read it.