A Review of The Scrolls of Nef by Gary Glickman, Hand to Hand Publishing
A country—a whole continent— is overrun by pious, murderous invaders, claiming to represent the will of "The One." A great earthquake has broken open an ancient library, preserved beneath lava for 3,000 years, full of scrolls proving or disproving opposite versions of the "true" history. The task of preserving the scrolls against those who seek to destroy them eventually falls to one hesitant hero and his friends. . . .
Whether The Scrolls of Nef will be read as a "fantasy" or a "realist" work of imaginative fiction may have more to do with one's own genre prejudices than whether such a distinction is possible or necessary. Certainly Tolkien's spirit must hover (and tower) over any story that is epic in scope involving countries at war, friends on a journey through a vividly-drawn, familiar natural world that is somehow closer to magic and beauty than our own. And where Tolkien is lovingly invoked, so is the expectation that grounded realism will quickly show its fantastic side.
Gary Glickman's third novel, in homage both to Tolkien and Ursula LeGuin, conjures a pleasurable shifting tension between the easy distinctions. Looked at one way—through the lens of shared human experience—the invasion of fundamentalists theme is about as up-to-date and in-your-face realist as one could choose these days (just as Mordor must have been familiar to any Tolkien reader in 1949). Looked at in another way, the island of Nef is not exactly locatable on any atlas, nor is its medieval technology exactly specified, even if the feeling of Nef city is as familiar as any decadent city anywhere. It is no allegory then but a realist novel in a confabulated world, where all the usual laws of nature seem—mostly— to apply. Still, the EarthSea-like fog does roll in at some very opportune times—and the narrative never quite loses its high storytelling voice.
In fact, the Scrolls of Nef is two epic stories converging finally into one. One is a high tale in the heroic style, and depends for its force on its archetypal resonance, like any great tale. The other depends on its verisimilitude as a true memoir of a real person, a particular writer (okay, he's a king) with a complex and engaging personality and big story. In other words, the rhythms of both fantasy and realism sustain and heighten the reading pleasures, each informing and framing the other in a yin-yang intermix. Both Tolkien and LeGuin create their own magic with that same double-reality of a shaped narrative embedded in "real" narrators' lives .
The plot: Two teenage princes of the royal family of the invaded northern country of Ruhal flee during the night with their mother and sister. The elder brother, Talland, turns back to defend the castle and the king. The younger brother, Orland, sails with his mother and sister to the mother's kingdom, the southern island of Nef across the ocean. Both royal brothers must journey far for their moral training; it is the braiding together of their two stories that creates the novel's shape.
Orland narrates his own story, and becomes the storyteller imagining the story of his brother, the crown prince separated by war across an ocean:
"It was a way to remember where I had come from, and the absent people who, whether alive or not, would always be part of me; a meditation in order to remember what was precious, and, I hoped, to keep them safe."
Orland studies the scrolls with his scholarly great-uncle, and becomes distracted by the ghetto of the old city, where the northern refugees speak his native language. Meanwhile Talland, wounded, awakens on the top of a northern mountain, in a ruined abbey run by strange women who call themselves healers. . . .
But the novel is much more than its long, good story. Both threads of the story are epic in scope; one kingdom is saved, another seems to fall into a decadence resembling contemporary "real" life. The book is also a meditation on love, and time passing, and the question of what can be saved for the next generations. Hazell, the most famous ancient poet of Nef, asks what virtually every page of this novel asks, which is to look around at the miraculous world as it exists in each fleeting moment, and receive as much awareness of its magnificence as possible. A scrap of her poem is discovered in the ruins: "Brothers and sisters of time to come," she writes——the female Walt Whitman of her time:
Has this somehow reached you?
If so, send word back quick and tell us
What is true....
Is war no more?
Have you answered the old question?
If not tell us first where you look
when your eyes seek beauty....
Because (like Tolkien's masterpiece) it is a pseudo-memoir, a pseudo-history, a pseudo geography with a pseudo literature, The Scrolls of Nef is also a meditation on truth, and the nature of literature and history. Both literature and history claim to speak the truth, one by connotation (literature) and the other (history) by denotation. Joseph Campbell long ago staked out the claim that connotation holds the bigger truth—mythology as the truest truth. By the time the story concludes, so many layers of narration have been orchestrated that it is difficult to remember the story is in fact "just" a novel, "just" a confabulation—— and we don't even care so much to distinguish. It has so successfully created an experience of overlapping realities of memoir, translation, and ancient fragments, that the reader can almost believe the novel's history to be part of the "real" past— six generations have been coherently imagined, a symphony has come together of disparate melodies.
A reviewer could go on and on: The novel is also a meditation on gender and gender roles, on music as healing and prayer, on traditional healing through love, on the undervalued passions and true heroisms of elders, on the oppressive, murderous history of monotheism. And the novel's chock-a-block with intriguing songs, all supposedly translations of translations—some of them seem almost to reveal their melodies on the page, direct from some Nef or other of long ago.
Disappointments, to balance out such praise? As Tolkien said of his own book, he agreed with the criticism that it was too brief. The surprising and also inevitable conclusion of the Scrolls of Nef made me gasp and compulsively flip to the beginning pages again, to make sure they were all still there, if I needed to dive back in before leaving the dream.
 Years From Now (Knopf, 1987), and Aura, (Hayworth Press, 1994)