An Imperfect Lens
In 1883 an epidemic of cholera struck Alexandria, Egypt. Several scientists who work in Louis Pasteur’s laboratory in Paris arrive quickly on the scene, as does Robert Koch of Germany, recent discoverer of the cause of tuberculosis. They set up labs and begin the hunt for the organism that causes so much misery. Roiphe castes her eye on conditions in the streets of Alexandria, and readers are able to envisage the cholera microbe making its way from a dirty hand to a drinking glass, from dirty water to a flavored ice which looks so appealing on a hot day. Even the well-to-do, who know that they should be very vigilant about sanitation, sometimes fail disastrously, often through the smallest slip. The horrors of cholera’s effects on the body are vividly described.
Louis Thuillier, one of the French scientists, soon meets the daughter of a Jewish doctor, and their relationship, along with her growing interest in the experiments in the lab, provide a glimpse into the long-established, but not terribly secure, Jewish community of Alexandria. The British have just taken control from the French, and politics enters the picture, with far-reaching ramifications.
An Imperfect Lens hurls the reader into the midst of the cholera epidemic, deftly providing us with enough of the picture to see the terrible toll taken on inhabitants of the city, while allowing us to meet some engaging characters.