In The Lover (The first book of “The Sufi Mysteries Quartet) Laury Silvers immerses the reader in Medieval Baghdad. While as the title of the series implies this novel is a mystery, a murder mystery to be exact, it is also an introduction to a world most North American readers will know little or nothing about.
Set in 907 AD the story’s bare bones are a young serving boy dies under mysterious circumstances and Silver’s main character Zaytuna is drawn into investigating his death. However this is merely the portal through which we enter the novel’s world. For through Zaytuna’s interactions with the various characters she meets while investigating we learn about life in her society at this time.
In her preface to the work Silvers advices readers if they want accurate descriptions of life in contemporary Iraq to read the works of various Iraqi writers. What she has done is a remarkable job of not only bringing the streets of the era’s Baghdad to life, she also provides readers with a fascinating and objective view of life in a Medieval Muslim society.
From the division between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the treatment of African Muslims by some Arabs, to the intricacies of Sufi mysticism and an explanation of how the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad (known as the Hadith) were preserved and transmitted orally. Even better, from a reader’s point of view, is how she is able to incorporate all these details into the her story without detracting from the plot.
Naturally, as her protagonist is a woman, we also learn a substantial amount about how women are treated in this society. There were the same divisions we see today. Hardliners who think women need to be sequestered as soon as they come of age and those who think they should be allowed the same freedoms, including education, as men.
Zaytuna isn’t out only guide through the streets of Baghdad. Through her we meet Mustafa, a young man she’s known since childhood who is part of the Sufi community and a religious scholar, her twin brother Tein, an ex-soldier who now works for the Baghdad police, and Ammar, Tein’s old comrade in the border wars who is the investigating officer with the police in charge of looking into the serving boy’s death.
Each of these four characters serve to introduce readers to another strata of society. From Tein and Ammar’s interactions with some of the seedier elements of the streets to Mustafa’s life among the religious community readers are given an understanding of the way man interact with each other.
Of course, as in any society at any time, there is a huge difference in the way women and men are treated. Through Zaytuna, her friends, and her investigation into the strange death of the serving boy, we come to learn how just like the world over in Medieval times women have limited rights. However, while some higher class women are sequestered, other women have more freedom of movement than we’re used to seeing among women of these times.
However, readers find out that Zaytuna isn’t exactly typical. First of all she tries to lead a ascetic live, depriving herself of anything beyond basic sustenance in order to prove her devotion to Allah. For her mother had been a famous mystic whose love and devotion to Allah was so great people would flock from all around to listen to her speak.
In fact Zaytuna and her brother were raised by a community of Sufis as their mother, although she loved them, was so consumed by her love for Allah she wasn’t able to care for them properly. Underneath her devotion to Allah, Zaytuna carries a secret resentment towards both her God and her mother. Where, after all was the love for her?
The title of the book, The Lover, is one of the names Sufis will use to refer to Allah. For He is the ultimate Lover as his love in unbounded and all encompassing. While some have confused this concept with the notion of love between men and women (see the bad interpretations of Rumi’s poetry as “love poems” as an example) it is meant to represent how people should live their lives with love.
This is an important element in the story because Silvers shows us how during the course of her investigation into the death of the serving boy, Zaytuna is also investigating herself. With the guidance of the Sufi religious leader who raised her we see her work through her issues dealing with her mother and her own self-deprecation. It is a fascinating process seen through the lens of faith and common sense.
The Lover is an intriguing and compelling novel which operates on multiple layers. Silvers has done a remarkable job of disseminating information while writing an interesting and exciting story of murder and mystery. She does an equally wonderful job in interweaving a variety of storylines without the reader ever becoming confused as to what is going on or suffering from information overload.
The Lover is a wonderful book filled with details of everyday life in Medieval Baghdad that make it a fascinating read. Not only a great story, but an education as well – what more could you want from a novel?