The Book of the Most Precious Substance

Written by Sara Gran

Review written by Ali Karim

Ali Karim was a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.

The Book of the Most Precious Substance
Faber and Faber
RRP: £16.99
Released: November 3 2022

To be released just after the Halloween weekend, this latest from cult author Sara Gran is as apt as it is distracting. Released last year in North America, it finally arrives on our side of the Atlantic thanks to Faber. As thought-provoking and frightening as last year’s re-issue of Come Closer – it will rest in the mind [and memories] of readers just as uncomfortably.

Ostensibly a love letter to book collectors and bibliophiles, it is far more. It contains the theme of metafiction which striates the narrative – the pursuit of a dangerous book that may, or may not exist - giving Sara Gran the appellation to her unusual novel.

A former author and bibliophile [with the baggage of a troubled childhood], Lily Albrecht has turned into book dealing. Her change of direction was forced upon her, as she sells-off her own book collection in order to pay for the healthcare of husband, Abel, the love of her life who she termed ‘the most attractive man I’ve ever seen’.  Like Lily, Abel was a writer, but also an academic who she met while on a book tour for her debut work ‘Beauty’. Tragically, while working on her sophomore work [the aptly titled ‘Labyrinth’], Abel’s mental health started its decline, until now Abel is no more than a hollow-figure, cared for by the enigmatic Nigerian refugee, Awe.

Gran’s narrative opens with a book dealer colleague, ‘Shyman’ asking her about “The Book of the Most Precious Substance” - while they rubbed shoulders at an Antiquarian book fair in New York’s Grammercy Park. Shayman tells her, in a whisper; if discovered, it could sell for over million dollars or more. It was published in Europe in the 1600’s. It’s a Latin text of which it is rumoured, only a handful of copies were ever circulated. It’s a powerful occult text, with magic intertwined with the erotic. Lily thinks little of it, until another colleague Lucas Markson informs her that Shyman was murdered the previous evening in a mugging gone wrong.

And therein, as the Bard would tell us, ‘lies the rub’.

Lily, with little else in her life, starts her pursuit of this mysterious grimoire [allegedly] loaded with potent eroticism. Her trail leads her firstly to the home of voodoo / hoodoo, Louisiana’s New Orleans and then into the dark alleys of Europe. Perhaps more importantly, the reader becomes immersed into Gran’s evocative and at times hypnotic writing. Characters enter and exit the reader’s consciousness subtly, but they leave their traces into memory like stains or scaring.

The intriguing premise of Gran’s novel [set in the gentile world of antiquarian book dealing] soon transforms its narrative structure at the midpoint, into a tense thriller.

I would also add that after I put the book down, I quickly downloaded the Audio version and listened to it. The audio-book is most engaging as Gran’s words are adroitly presented by the first-person vocal performance of the renowned Carol Monda.

Highly recommended as Gran’s continued excursion into the mystical is not only hugely entertaining, but written in an extraordinary style, one that provokes deep thought.

This is a book worth adding to your collection.

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