Dr. Marion Bailey has had a checkered career, from the moment she washed up in 1927, a failed scholar blindsided by the brutality of the British Mandate in Iraq to her final adventure in 1938, persecuted by a demonic gibbon conjured up out of a medieval Arabic bestiary. But throughout her tribulations, she's dragged along with her the same traits and wounds: a tortured genius for decoding obscure dead languages, a fragile psyche increasingly battered by each of her exploits, and a tormented responsiveness to the medieval detritus churned up in her wake--and then gobbled up by the British Museum.
Now, in 1967, her forty-year-old son has discovered among this detritus--the five-hundred-year-old Ottoman Book of Kings, the eleventh-century Fatimid pearl of enormous size, the thirteenth-century Ilkhanid celestial globe, and the amorous golem cobbled together by an illegitimate French Queen and a Nabatean magician of ill repute--a manuscript that even his mother refused to touch. As he decides whether to take up the silent challenge posed by the sealed book, he slips backward in time, appraising, finally, his mother's troubled history.
The Thirteen Trials of Dr. Marion Bailey is reminiscent of the whimsical scholarly puzzles posed by Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges, but told with the cruelty and dark humor of Muriel Spark. Lacerated and compromised, yet never defeated, Marion Bailey embodies the interwar generation, replete with its mutilated ethics, its forlorn decency, and the cultivated wit with which it endured.