A metaphysical thriller that follows a mysterious set of terra-cotta tablets through a violent history.
For his first novel, Bhattacharyya (Kernel of Vedic Truth, 2014, etc.) traces a set of untranslated, ancient artifacts as they disappear and reappear in various eras. Although the story begins in contemporary Rome, the bulk of the narrative occurs in India, from the late Roman Empire to the Middle Ages to the Roaring ’20s. The tablets begin in the hands of a guru, who, to foil possible Roman encroachment and treachery from his local circle, takes the tablets’ secrets to his grave. But his earlier conversation with a student complicates the novel’s philosophy, as does a later scene of a different guru (in the Middle Ages) giving a lecture on the relationship between the Absolute and the Self. Though these dialogues on Vedic interpretations interrupt the narrative flow, they do lend some metaphysical value to what’s otherwise an action-based story of hidden assassins, doomed treasure hunts, and conspiracy. These adrenaline-filled events, though, deepen the mystery in their own way, in that Bhattacharyya rarely explains the natures of the various assailants, creating a paranoid mood as the main characters meet attacks from all directions. Likewise, the fact that these attacks take place on a large timeline may also provoke readers’ questions. Bhattacharyya helpfully addresses many of them, perhaps too easily, in the final chapter, as some fantasy creeps into the story. Unfortunately, the book’s intriguing form can’t make up for its often awkward prose and its lack of character development. Some of the characters are never even named, instead going by “the student” and “the learned”: “The learned tried to think, despite impaired senses. In a stubborn move, he stopped the falter—it was like an impulse; he breathed hard, strength and recovery returning to his limbs.” With such missteps, the text rarely builds any momentum.
A novel with a unique structure that falls victim to stunted prose, thin characters, and a barely justified climax.