"The Book of the Most Precious Substance" | Reviewed by William Winkler
The late Johnny Carson said, “If you buy the premise, you buy the bit;” that is, if an artist, comedian or otherwise, can convince their audience of the reality of a statement the audience will follow that artist down any paths that statement might lead.
Novelist Sara Gran, in her most recent novel “The Book of the Most Precious Substance,” asks her readers to accept the existence of a book of incantations and instructions which, if followed to the letter, can grant the user virtually unlimited power and influence.
Gran’s protagonist is Lily Albrecht, an erstwhile novelist. Lily’s successful writing career has been derailed by her need to support and care for her husband, who in early middle age is afflicted with a rapidly progressive, debilitating dementia. She now earns her living as a buyer and seller of rare used books.
Lily learns of the existence of a book concerning the occult which would bring a sale price of seven figures. The narrative describes her adventures in her search for the book. Her quest, in the company of another book dealer, leads her into the orbits of increasingly wealthy, powerful, and unsavory individuals, all of whom wish to possess the book and all of whom will apparently stop at nothing to obtain it.
Since the book she is seeking is described as a volume of “sexual magic” many of her experiences are erotic, described in increasingly graphic prose, which some readers may find objectionable. And in the end Lily learns that the book possesses malevolent and controlling powers of its own, corrupting all who touch it, and all those it touches, herself included.
Gran’s previous novels include a trilogy centering on Claire DeWitt, “the world’s best (and most unconventional) detective.” DeWitt is a disciple of a dead French detective who “shuns fingerprints and other forensic evidence in favor of intuition, omens, and dreams.” In her most recent novel Gran takes a deeper dive into the supernatural. And her real-life experience of trading in the rare-book market provides a sense of authenticity to her descriptions of the profession.
“The Book of the Most Precious Substance” is a quick read. For those who are willing to accept its improbable central premise, and for those who will not be put off by some blue prose, it will prove to be an amusing diversion.