No serial killer could be more terrifying than the ”unseen pulsing crescent moonshapes” in the pages of Anne Roiphe’s sober, haunting An Imperfect Lens. Set during the cholera epidemic that ravaged Alexandria, Egypt, in 1883, the chilling narrative — part medical detective story, part historical romance begins with the arrival of the microbe aboard a ship, where it has stowed away in a water barrel. Coolly, Roiphe charts its progress: A servant sloshes water into a cup for sailors to drink, splashing some onto his shoes, and from shoes and infected sewage, Vibrio cholerae silently heads ashore to the city’s puddles and streams, the rinds of fruit, the rims of wine goblets, and the bellies and bowels of unsuspecting humans, killing its victims within days, sometimes hours. (If nothing else, this book inspires renewed gratitude for modern medicine and water treatment.)
Roiphe’s protagonist, Louis Thuilliers, is based on a real scientist dispatched from Paris by Louis Pasteur to identify cholera under a microscope, a job that exposed him to extreme personal risk and moral quandaries. Alas, Roiphe pads this powerful tale with some canned subplots, including a trite love affair between Thuilliers and the fictional Este Malina, the headstrong daughter of an Alexandrian physician.
But while Este quickly sinks back into the anonymous ranks of pretty proto-feminist heroines, Roiphe gives Thuilliers’ assistant, Marcus, a memorably macabre liaison with Masika, a flirtatious hotel maid. Under Alexandria’s boardwalk one night, as Marcus fumbles with the buttons on Masika’s dress, the girl suddenly screams and recoils. Her lips turn blue as vital fluids gush from her body, and soon she lies dead on the beach. Far from sensationalistic, Roiphe’s calm, compassionate recounting heightens the horror of this indelible scene.