The many faux naif illustrations by Oly Rafe that accompany Joanna Kavenna’s text suggest A Field Guide to Reality is aimed at the young-adult fiction market, but this intelligent, engaging and sometimes confusing novel will appeal to a more mature readership.
The narrative jumps between 13th-century Oxford and the present day, although the modern city is enveloped much of the time in a mist that eliminates topographical detail. The main character, Eliade Jencks, has little contact with university life until she inherits a box from an academic friend that is believed to have once contained his magnum opus, the Field Guide to Reality (surely a nod to Edward Casaubon’s Key to all Mythologies in Middlemarch). She sets out to find the missing work, and what follows is a sophisticated and occasionally opaque roman des idées, part Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, part Gulliver’s Travels.
Eliade is presumably named after the theological historian Mircea Eliade, who proposed that all religions are based on the binary opposition of the sacred and the profane, a polarity embodied in the novel by a recurring image of dust motes floating in sunlight. Her surname may refer to the American