This is a remarkable book. The author, Tom Harper, succeeds in combining a story set in the 4th century BC with a modern thriller; a discussion of philosophy with dramatic action; myth with mysticism.
In the first story thread, the narrative is put into the mouth of the philosopher Plato and the chapters are headed by quotations from his various writings. But this is not the assured, clear-thinking Plato that we see from his writing but a middle-aged pupil of Socrates still feeling bereft from the loss of his mentor and wrestling with fundamental questions. He travels to Sicily in search of Agathon, another of Socrates’s pupils, and en route he encounters the proponents of other philosophies, notably the adherents of Pythagoras, who believe that numbers hold the key to the universe. Pythagoras saw a close connection between numbers and music, and music is a recurrent theme throughout the book. Harper’s thesis is that something happened to Plato during his time in Sicily which brought him to a state of enlightenment, which is expressed in his later work.
The second story, which is intertwined with the first, is about Jonah, a singer-songwriter with a rock group. Here the musical theme is repeated and Harper is very acute on the way music can transport us into a different state of being. The connection with the older narrative is made through Jonah’s wife, Lily, an archaeologist engaged in a dig in southern Italy where the ancient Greek city of Thurii once stood. The discovery of a golden tablet engraved with mystic instructions is the mainspring of the story. The instructions seem to be a guide to entering the Underworld and returning and a Greek magnate, desperate to learn the secret of immortality, kidnaps Lily. Jonah’s story is the tale of his desperate search for her.
The two narratives climax in a spine chilling descent literally into the Underworld beneath the volcano Etna on Sicily. Here the story switches between Plato and Jonah, as the fate of one mirrors the fate of the other. Dream and illusion are interspersed with reality until the protagonists and the reader hardly knows one from the other. Out of this chaos Plato finds the enlightenment he seeks and Jonah, a modern day Orpheus, leads his wife back to the living world.
This is a gripping story which expands both the emotions and the intellect.