Pillars of Light
By Jane Johnson
Doubleday Canada, 496 pages, $23
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/1/2016 (2304 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
British novelist Jane Johnson returns with Pillars of Light, a 12th-century epic set during the Third Crusade. Chronicling the notorious Siege of Acre, this stunning adventure of a novel reveals both the brutality and beauty of humanity through the eyes of ordinary people.
Pillars of Light is an answer to a question; struck by an insatiable curiosity, Johnson wanted to know how England's Gothic cathedrals were influenced and inspired by Islamic architecture. After two years of extensive research and three years of writing and revisions, the answer Johnson sought unfolds through the journey of John Savage, a scrappy con man and artist.
Escaping a cruel life, John travels with a band of tricksters throughout Europe, trading religious miracles for profit. When Richard the Lionheart rallies an army to reclaim the Kingdom of Jerusalem from the infidels, John's ramshackle band of misfits is recruited to fight in the Holy Wars, taking them east to Syria.
Arriving at the ancient port city of Acre, also called Akka, John's company joins in the horrific siege. Beset by visions of pillars of light and dreams of magnificent cathedrals, John takes comfort in drawing while the world around him falls apart.
On the other side of Akka's walls, Zohra struggles to keep her family safe as the siege drags on. With one brother carrying messages back and forth between the city's officials and the great Muslim army and another acting as personal guard to the grand sultan Salah ad-Din, Zohra is charged with running the household and caring for those who remain in the city. As Akka grows more dangerous by the day, and as waves of famine and disease threaten to submerge the city in total despair, Zohra seeks refuge in her friendship with Nathanael, a young Jewish doctor. Together with their families they hold on to hope the siege will come to an end.
One fateful night, John's path collides with those on the other side of the wall and of the war. Confronted by those he thought his enemy and dazzled by the pillars of light he had been dreaming of in Akka's grand mosque, John begins to see the futility of the fighting and the brutality all men are capable of. Grappling with all he has seen by both sides of the crusade, John realizes the war is pointless.
Though painted as a simple man, John is the most insightful of all, calling out the Holy War for what it truly was -- unholy.
Pillars of Light is a story of opposites. Themes of love and hate, life and death, mercy and murder and clashes between believer and non-believer, war and peace and east and west all culminate in ancient Syria. For Johnson, Syria was an important stage to set her story -- writing the book while the current tragedy of the country plays out was both poignant and relevant. Pillars of Light reminds us, as most historical reflection does, that we rarely learn from the mistakes and tragedies of the past. But in the midst of destruction, Johnson also shows the beauty of the human spirit, giving us hope for the future.
For fans of Philippa Gregory and Ken Follett, and reminiscent of Ridley Scott's 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, this irresistible and humanizing epic is sure to delight.
Katrina Sklepowich is a lover of all things literary, and creator of the Literally, Katrina podcast and blog at LiterallyKatrina.com.