An Imperfect Lens | Anne Roiphe

This is what historical fiction can — and should — be.

In 1883 cholera comes to Alexandria in Egypt. In France, Louis Pasteur is an old man, infirm, unwilling to travel and so he sends a team of scientists he has trained to try to identify the infectious agent behind cholera — the necessary first step in stopping the epidemic. In that team are Louis Thuillier, a young man who wants to prove himself; Edmond Nocard, a veterinarian; Emile Roux, an odd man but much liked; and a young assistant called Marcus. In Alexandria they must deal not only with the French consul, but also with some competition from the German scientist Robert Koch, who has a head start on them in searching for the cause of the disease. And there’s a local doctor, a Jew whose family has been in Egypt for centuries. The doctor has a daughter who is on the brink of a suitable engagement.

To all this you have to add the most important character, the disease itself. Roiphe wrote this novel in omniscient voice in order to follow the disease through its life cycle, which she does with such vivid, evocative images that I often found myself rereading paragraphs just out of admiration.

So you’ve got multiple conflicts: socioeconomic, cultural, religious/scientific, romantic. You’ve got scientists who understand (for the first time in history) the true nature of infectious disease in one of the dirtiest, poorest cities in the world and a disease that kills horrifically in a matter of hours. You’ve got a young scientist and a young woman who would normally never cross paths, who are thrown together in the pursuit of a cure. You’ve got Germans versus Frenchmen, an age-old rivalry. The superstitions of the older generations and their distrust of the new science. Somehow or another, Roiphe balances it all and tells an incredible story, one that I will be thinking about for a long time.

In its bones, this is a true story. Roiphe takes people and events and reimagines them into something truly wonderful. I suspect it may be one of the best novels I read this year.