Lebanese journalist and author Maalouf's (Leo Africanus, 1988, etc.) Goncourt Prizewinning historical romance is lyrical and poetic. Set in the Lebanese village of Kfaryabda, the novel skips merrily from the present into the late 19th century as an aged townsman tells his nephew the story of Lamia and Tanios. Lamia, the wife of an official in the court of the local potentate, is so beautiful that her pulchritude has become proverbial in the region, and the Sheikh becomes determined to have her. He seduces her, and Lamia bears a child. Despite the secrecy and brevity of their tryst, rumors begin to circulate in the court and in the village that the child is the Sheikh's. Tanios, the child, grows up with the best that can be provided, including an education at a foreign mission school. It is a period when Lebanon is the center of a great political game: Egypt and the Ottoman Empire contend against each other; France and Britain jockey for position; Islam and Christianity jostle; rebellion against the hierarchical political structure is brewing; and intrigue abounds. When Tanios's legal father (Lamia's husband) kills the Patriarch, the Christian leader of the village and a rival in the Sheikh's court, he and Tanios are forced to flee. Beginning their flight in terror and remorse, the two fugitives soon become embroiled in the machinations tearing the country apart. Eventually it becomes clear that only they can put a halt to the troubles, and they emerge as unlikely mediators in the diplomatic wrangling. The book's title derives from an unusual rock formation, resembling a great stone chair, that dominates the village. Local legend has it that Tanios, who has taken on mythic status, sat on the chair and was never seen again. Magical and compelling, the novel is the work of a master stylist, rendered in a subtle and supple translation.
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