The Book of Splendor (by Frances Sherwood, W.W. Norton and Co., $25.95) lives up to its title, which is a translation of the word Zohar, a central text in the body of Jewish mystical literature. Set in early seventeenth-century Prague, this novel interweaves the lives of Rochel, a Jewish seamstress trapped in a passionless marriage, a mad emperor obsessed with immortality, a rabbi who creates a golem in order to protect the Jews from Christian attacks, and a host of other unusual characters. Rochel and the golem identify with each others’ social limitations—she as a woman in a patriarchal society and he as a seemingly subhuman giant in a world of men—and their bond leads to an affair with disastrous consequences. The rabbi, along with a few British alchemists, is forced to help the emperor discover the secret of immortality.
Rich with historical detail, The Book of Splendor is a vivid fantasy with Faustian overtones that explores the extents and limits of human creative power. It is an out-of-the-ordinary, dreamlike tale that is beautifully rendered and imaginatively rooted in the Jewish mystical tradition and other sources of indigenous European fable and folklore.