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Peter Millar: The Black Madonna
They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but what if the book’s author puts himself up for judgement with a tagline that has created controversy on its own?
That is the case with The Black Madonna, a compelling thriller by UK journalist and author Peter Millar. The bold phrase 'A book to make Dan Brown turn green with envy' may give readers the impression that author Peter Millar is just another writer simply trying to create controversy with his rather overblown claims. Surprisingly, The Black Madonna turns out to be the complete opposite; it's a genuinely enjoyable read with a neatly constructed plot full of cultural and historical detail.
Nazareem is a young Muslim Palestinian archaeologist who discovers what might be the first image of the Virgin Mary drawn in her real time, displaying the Virgin Mary with black skin. Nazareem thinks that she is onto something that might turn the world upside down, but before her theory can be proven; the painting is stolen from the small Gaza museum.
From that moment on, Nazareem finds herself threatened by people who will not stop at killing someone to get what they want. Not sure of why she’s being followed, she flees to London seeking help form Marcus, an ex-lover who is also an archaeologist. Together, they realise that this chase has more to it than the stolen painting.
As the events begin to gradually unfold, The Black Madonna becomes one of the hardest books to put down. The build-up to the focal point of the plot could have evolved a little faster, but then again; it's a deep, well-constructed story with vivid descriptions that don't bore the reader.
It's obvious that Millar has conducted a significant amount of research for the book to turn into a profound debate about the essence of Islam and Christianity. He openly discusses the points of difference between the religions without tiptoeing around these sensitive subjects. Luckily for Millar, he doesn’t tackle the story through his personal bias, instead; he allows the debate to be carried by characters from both religions.
Maybe it was the element of combining mystery with religious history that suggests a parallel between The Black Madonna and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.However, some will find that the comparison isn’t fair; through tackling scientific angles of history that could redefine religion, Brown created a lot of religious condemnation.
Millar probably won’t face the same allegations, as he’s been fair in portraying both sides of the story. Perhaps this may make Dan Brown jealous after all.
The structure of the book is difficult to map out. While the story is chronological in the bigger sense, events tend to jump back and forth, where each child slave’s full story is only revealed the further you read. We do not know exactly how either of them came to be until to the end.
Other distractions from the story line are religious references. Using Biblical references, verses from the Quran and the history of Moses and Adam, Thompson uses mythical tales to reflect on the characters at hand and the trials they face. He even has a character and element that bears an uncanny representation of Noah and his arc.
Apart from his use of history and religious fables, Thompson also tells a very aggressive, and often times, dark story. Dodola is married off as a child and upon turning to prostitution is subjected to rape and mistreatment. Zam is a slave who sacrifices his manhood out of a loss of a better life. They are both abused time and time again and having their misfortunes sketched out for the eye to witness adds a shocking element to the novel.
This brings us to what makes the novel so wonderful at the same time; the illustrations. The detailing of the sketches and the exemplary hand-work at play is extremely commendable. Action scenes have your eyes rushing through the pages as frantically as one seen on a TV screen. The beauty in the details is endless; the graphics are looming and grand but also sensual and precise. There is a lot of calligraphy incorporated, which makes for an interesting experience for those who can read Arabic.
Another interesting aspect is his combination of the new and the old. Though the story takes place in today’s world, a lot of the prevalent ideologies are from nomadic times; primitive and beastly.
There is indeed something quite poetic about the story he tells – and the manner in which it is told – regardless of the gruesome, harsh aspects; on the contrary, it is these parts that make the novel that much more meaningful.
Born and raised in Texas, Gretchen McCullough's teaching career has taken her to Egypt, Turkey and Japan; currently, McCullough teaches writing in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
Released earlier this year, her latest publication is titled ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’; a compilation of short stories revolving around a host of eccentric individuals and their experiences in Cairo. A large bulk of the stories are driven by the thoughts rummaging through the characters minds and, more often than not, they transpire to be both charming and relatable.
‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ has a colourful team of characters with strong presence, charisma and an air of familiarity. Digging deeper into their personal lives and problems, her writing style is distinct, bringing an American charm and non-linearity to her stories, which builds a pleasant intricacy.
With many of the characters connected by a single building in Garden City, McCullough allots the main characters in her stories as small cameos in others, spreading the characters' presence and allowing for further development.
In ‘A Little Honey and a Little Sunlight’, we are given insight into the raging nature of Professor Gary by his dying neighbour, Joe Pulaski - a poet - reminiscing his days spent living in Cairo. Many pages later in ‘Pure Water’, we find ourselves reading from the eyes of Dr Gary as he spends time with his bulky Greek friend, Kolombos, in a mental asylum before the uprising of January 25th. The title story, meanwhile, sees two main protagonists; journalist and teacher, Mary Beth Somers, and her dentist, Dr Samy. Far from sappy, the two fall into a love which avoids the overt romantic notions seen in cliched literature, despite ending on a melancholic note.
Aside from the characters, Cairo as a city is portrayed as an integral player in the stories. On regular occasions, vivid descriptions of popular places in the city are given, such as El Horreya, Windsor Bar, the Gezirah Club and Koshari Abou Tarek. Having visited all these places ourselves, it's obvious that McCullough has immersed herself in the city, and amongst its people, well beyond the point of a touristic escapade. She’s become a sort of semi-native, in touch with Cairene culture, but maintains enough outside insight to give a new perspective to those who’ve been living in the city for too long.
With its mix of emotions and interesting character troupe, ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ promises an entertaining, comforting read for both locals and foreigners alike.