on 30 September 2003
'Sinai Tapestry' begins with the story of Strongbow (I won’t even begin to relate it), and proceeds in extravagant, grand, bawdy, mad style towards a moving, hugely cataclysmic denouement that is itself followed by a smaller, less epic but equally tragic personal cataclysm. And it seems quite appropriate that Whittemore's novel should have both a big ending (involving a nation) and a small one (involving an individual), for the novel as a whole is about both big things and little things. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is about individuals, little people, doing big things or becoming involved in big events.
But that doesn't quite do justice to the sheer amount of imaginative material there is in 'Sinai Tapestry', the first novel in Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet. A Victorian explorer (amongst other things) writes a book about (in short) sex that is longer, and more comprehensive, than most encyclopaedias; entire dynastic backgrounds and decade long feats of endurance are related to the reader in a few pages; an original, ancient Bible is discovered along with the knowledge that it written by a blind man and a mad man trained to write; the relationship of a 3000 year old man with Jerusalem is weaved into the main narrative in such a way that it becomes central to the novel. This is a book that chooses all the grand specialist subjects - the millennial sweep of history, the pains and pleasure of human endeavour, love, friendship - and does justice to them all.
Key to 'Sinai Tapestry' is the droll, wry, very distinctive narrative voice (often seeming to be complicit with the madnesses it is relating to the reader) which holds everything together, and draws the reader through the book at great speed. Reading 'Sinai Tapestry' you find yourself periodically having to take a breath, because the narrative, thrashing along from wild image to wild image, isn't going to take a breath for you. Whittemore has given us a narrator - in turns humorous, satirical, and reverent, as required - every bit the equal of his narrative.
So, 'Sinai Tapestry' is a big book (albeit one that isn't particularly long, at 310 pages) from a big writer - a writer who is (and everyone who reads one of Whittemore's books comes away feeling this) criminally under read and under-appreciated. Full of big ideas and imagery, big in scope and ambition, and – ultimately - big in its execution, this isn't a novel that drifts serenely past the reader. It comes boldly up to them, grabs their hands in a firm handshake, and 'insists' that they get to know one another. It comes highly recommended - and I very much look forward to encountering Whittemore again.