There are plenty of great novels of ideas out there; books that cause a reader to question assumptions and wrestle with big issues. What makes The Mandelbaum Gate stand out is Muriel Spark's presentation of her ideas against the backdrop of early-1960s Jerusalem, a city recently divided between Israel and Jordon.
Barbara Vaughan is a British, half-Jewish, Catholic convert on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, determined to see the holy sites on both sides of the divided city while she waits for her agnostic, archeologist boyfriend to secure an annulment of his first marriage from the Vatican and return to his archeological dig on the Jordanian side of the border. Aided by an amnesiac British diplomat, a Christian Arab merchant, and a family of charming and corrupt travel agents, Vaughan survives her adventures with a mix of stiff-upper-lip British fortitude and religious fatalism.
The dramatic setting if the perfect foil for Vaughan's struggle to unify the conflicting parts of her own identity. Her struggle, coupled with a little cloak and dagger espionage and mildly farcical sexual exploits, make for a compelling read. Anthony Burgess included The Mandelbaum Gate on his list of best novels, calling it "a well-wrought and stimulating novel hard to forget."
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This was the second James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner that I read for the 2011 Battle of the Prizes, British Version.