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The School of Hard Rocks

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By Gary Krist,
whose most recent novel is "Chaos Theory"
Wednesday, February 27, 2002; Page C04


By Tobias Hill

Picador USA. 396 pp. $25

"Every lost treasure has its own believers," writes Katharine Sterne, the narrator of Tobias Hill's absorbing new novel, "The Love of Stones." And certainly Katharine should know. A freelance jewel trader from London, she has spent much of her adult life faithfully hunting for just such a lost treasure -- the Three Brethren, a precious ornamental clasp commissioned in the early 15th century by Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy. Composed of three balas rubies and four pearls clustered around a pyramid-shaped diamond, the clasp was twice part of the crown jewels of Britain before disappearing in early Victorian times. Katharine is convinced that the clasp still exists and is determined to find it for herself. "Inside me there was a love waiting to happen," she writes in her notebooks, attempting to explain her fixation, "and eventually, the jewel was what it happened to."

But we all know about the course of true love, and Katharine's search for the Brethren takes her on a convoluted and sometimes dangerous journey from Istanbul to eastern Turkey to London, Tokyo and beyond. Her quest provides "The Love of Stones" with a compelling narrative framework, lending it something of the urgent readability of a detective story. Like the elaborate jewel at its heart, however, the novel consists of several disparate elements placed in careful balance. Thus, Hill sets off the modern plot with episodes from the jewel's 600-year history -- most prominently, a story involving brothers Salman and Daniel Levy, 19th-century Iraqi Jews who played a role in reconstructing the Brethren in England after the clasp had been broken apart and sold off in pieces.

How Hill brings together these two temporally distant strands of plot, resolving both with one stroke in the novel's last chapter, is one of the more ingenious surprises in this cunningly designed book. But the connections between Katharine and the Levys -- and among all who ever owned or coveted the Brethren over the years -- run deeper than mere geography and circumstance. The jewel's true devotees have all shared the uniquely corrosive love of the book's title, a grim, obsessive desire that inevitably seems to place its victims at a distance from the warmth of human engagement. As Katharine's estranged sister writes to her, "The jewel is an addiction. Addiction is a disease. . . . This search isn't a life, it's more like a way of losing life." The love of stones, in other words, is the cold passion for things -- for power, for money, for beauty in its most abstract form. It is the alienating and ultimately futile love of something that cannot love back.

Writing with impressive vividness and precision, Hill lets the contrasting elements of his novel fold and unfold gracefully, like the pliable sheets of an origami box (things that turn "back on themselves" are recurring images in the book). His powers of description are striking, and he uses them to good effect in his depictions of the book's unabashedly exotic locales: "The mucky streets have been swallowed up in a bazaar of technicolour plastic buckets, clotted cream, slats of honey. Crates of grapes, sacks of sumac. A fishmonger waits behind plates of Tigris carp, a smith mends an adze in shafts of blowtorched sunlight." And while the plot occasionally shows the fingerprints of an over-manipulative author -- certain lucky breaks in Katharine's search, for instance, seem far too convenient to be believed -- this is a defect easily overlooked given the complexity of Hill's narrative scheme. Novels, after all, are never flawless, and like gems are often more interesting for their minor blemishes.

A potentially more serious problem is Katharine herself, who may strike some readers as too aloof and opaque to serve as the presiding consciousness of a long novel like this one. But there is ample justification for her remoteness. As a casualty of the love of stones, Katharine is by necessity an incomplete character; her emotional aridity is part of the point. And by the end of the book, she does begin to change, discovering a more appropriate object of passion. Admittedly, she loses this new love almost as soon as she finds him, occasioning yet another search for lost treasure. But at least this time, Katharine's quarry has a human face: "My life swings on its turning point," she writes on the book's final page. "I am looking for something. Looking for someone. A love out of stones."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company