Pillars of Light
by Jane Johnson
Double Day Canada January 5th, 2016 3 out of 5 Stars Historical Fiction
Jane Johnson’s Pillars of Light has been compared to likes of Diana Gabaldon’s books. For what reason, I don’t really know. Perhaps it’s the historical setting, or the writing even. Whatever it is, I felt the same way about Gabaldon’s books as I did Johnson’s: a visceral disconnection with the events taking place, and the general lack of empathy towards the characters.
Pillars of Light is – essentially – a two books in one type of reads. Set in the time of the Crusades, it tells the story of a Jewish doctor and a Muslim woman’s forbidden love affair. Zorah’s loyalty was to her family first and foremost. And while Nathanael’s parents were of liberal beliefs, they worried that their son constantly flirted with danger every time they meet.
On the other side of the globe, a group of miscreants traveled through Europe, duping Christendom of their money by selling faux religious artifacts while recruiting crusaders along the way. All in the name of Christ. I was fully vested to see the stories through. I wanted to see how they would intersect. To my disappointment, however, I found that the thread was very long, very fragile and very thin.
Jane Johnson wrote the struggle, the hunger, the disease brought by warfare with efficacy. For that, she was a wiz. She also showed how dangerous a relationship between Muslim and a Jew could be with every clandestine meeting Zorah and Nat ever had. In the meantime, John Savage and The Moor of the Traveling Crooks had an implied love affair that was barely explored. I must admit that both stories could’ve been better explored, better represented. It was always on the cusp of being great but sadly fell short. It lacked the emotions necessary for a reader to feel the connection – to the characters, to the stories.
However, if you are familiar with the history of Crusades, you might recognize some events that took place. Unfortunately, my knowledge of this war was relegated to Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. I did find it very helpful because the movie depicted a Sultan who forgave the invaders and allowed them to leave Jerusalem on their free will, as it did in the beginning of the book.
All in all, even though I didn’t fully appreciate Jane Johnson’s relative interpretation of particular events in the Crusades, I saw how important it is to her to give such a barbaric event a human perspective. The romance helped a bit, but I missed the connection between Zorah and Nat’s romance and the story of the Traveling Crooks. As a reader, I know I’m at fault when I focused more on the romance rather than the opportunity to learn more about a part of the History which, arguably, began the difficult relationship between Muslims and the world as we know it. And for that, I feel the need to apologize.