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The Barnes & Noble Review
Confirming Ian Pears's prodigious talent, The Dream of Scipio is a stunning meditation on history and moral philosophy that rises to the standard established in his highly acclaimed 1998 novel An Instance of the Fingerpost, the massive, intricate historical mystery that evoked comparisons to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
In The Dream of Scipio, Pears sends his keen imagination through history, braiding together three narratives across three embattled centuries, each of which reflects the cyclical struggle to preserve "civilized" values in the face of impending catastrophe. The earliest narrative thread takes place in the Provençal region of fifth-century Gaul, when the Roman Empire is crumbling and barbarian hordes are pounding at the gates. In the face of the escalating threat, philosopher/aristocrat Manlius Hippomanes devises a scheme to preserve the essence of the Golden Age of Rome. He also composes a document called "The Dream of Scipio," which sets forth in detail his own flawed moral philosophy, a philosophy that resonates throughout the novel.
The second thread is set at the height of the plague years in 14th-century Provence, where Olivier de Noyen -- a poet and fanatical collector of ancient manuscripts (one of which is Manlius's "Dream of Scipio") -- finds himself caught between the internecine rivalries of the Papacy and his obsessive love for an outcast woman. The final thread takes place in Nazi-occupied Provence, where scholar and historian Julien Barneuve becomes immersed in the intertwined histories of Manlius and de Noyen as he conducts a doomed love affair with a Jewish artist. When he reluctantly serves as a censor and minor administrator for the Vichy government, Barneuve comes face-to-face with the human cost of moral corruption and compromised ideals.
The Dream of Scipio is a beautifully constructed, rigorously intelligent novel that brings both the remote and recent past into sharp, precisely detailed focus. Pears brilliantly evokes the politics, passions, and prejudices of three disparate eras and poses difficult questions about personal responsibility and the choices a man must make when his world and way of life come under siege. (Bill Sheehan)