Set in China The Book of Crows chronicles a two thousand year search for an eponymously named book. The book is in fact a mythical text, the pages of which are said to contain every event in the history of the world, past, present and future. Individuals are intoxicated on the very idea of its existence. Emperors dispatch armies across the burning sands of the Gobi Desert, monks travel from Rome, a mining company blows away half a mountain all in the forlorn search for the book and its secrets.
The novel is divided into four different and diverse parts with a common theme that being the hunt for The Book of Crows. The book which is gigantic in scope is littered with a host of memorable characters both historical and fictional. China, a country which has constantly re-invented both itself and its history, is the setting for this tale of deceit, cunning, belief, adventure and disaster.
Part one of the novel begins in 80 BC with the kidnapping of a young girl known only as Jade. She is sold into slavery and is employed in The Whorehouse of a Thousand Sighs, a rundown brothel run by a madam known as The Empress. Over time the brothel plays host to a small bunch of disparate characters all of whom seem to be engaged in an un-named quest the success of which will guarantee their future. One evening Jade rescues a badly injured soldier clutching a wooden box. Much later the soldier reveals to Jade that the box contains The Book of Crows.
From here the story shifts to 1993 and an alcoholic civil servant who is employed in an office dealing with Public Safety on buildings currently under construction. He becomes alarmed when he learns that a mine a colleague of his went to inspect collapsed. He imagines that his colleague lies buried under tonnes of rubble and through an alcoholic haze decides to see if he can be of assistance to the search parties.
The action in the third part of the narrative centres around the return of the poet Bai Juai to the Imperial Court in the year 814AD. Once young and idealistic Bai Juai is now middle aged and world weary. He is still mourning the death of his daughter and is reluctant to engage in the intrigue in the royal court.
A group of Franciscan monks travelling to the court of the Great Khan in the year 1288 are the main protagonists in the fourth part of the novel. Their mission is to secure an alliance between the forces of Christianity and those of the Khan against the threat of the Moors. One by one the monks succumb to what is known as desert sickness. Three monks have already died when Friar Rosso, one of the expedition leaders, is called to the tent of fellow monk Thomas di Lovari expecting to hear his fellow emissary’s death bed confession. Instead what he hears is a story of murder, revenge, intrigue, the existence a secret organisation, heresy and the truth behind their mission, that being the discovery of the mythical Book of Crows.
There is a brief fifth narrative voice that of a Buddhist monk who in the mid 18th century travels through China searching for the possible re-incarnation of the recently deceased Panchen Lama. As he discovers two likely candidates the monk ponders upon fate and chance and the part both play in the lives of the individual.
As the novel progresses the stories cross and intersect. Older tales reference the past and we come to learn the fate of characters who earlier set out on a quest to recover the book. However the search for The Book of Crows continues despite the high cost and futility. As one character says,
“The book teaches us one lesson. Do not give up today for tomorrow. Prize the moments you have, keep them safe, make them last. The crows sent us a warning. The book is a curse.”
The narratives are not linear, instead the stories of the search for the book witch back and forth though time. Initially this may seem confusion and it is only as the novel progresses that a coherent narrative emerges. That Meekings can pull this off and sustain it throughout says much for his skill and argues well for his future as a novelist.
Any Cop?: Reading The Book of Crows it soon becomes apparent the Sam Meekings has an understanding of and an empathy with China and its people. From the quality of his writing, it should come as no surprise that he is a poet and at times it seems that whole passages need to be read aloud to full savour their sensuality. The Book of Crows is the second novel by Sam Meekings. It shall not be his last.