I'm a fan of ancient manuscripts, King Arthur and tales of the holy grail, and, of course, glorious old libraries. All of Lovett's novels are love letters to books and their magical powers, and also to the people who both today and in centuries past have been stewards to the written word. In The Lost Book of the Grail, not only do we see the history of one cathedral's library, but we see all the people who have (in some instances, given their lives) committed their lives to protect precious manuscripts and the secrets they hold.
Arthur Prescott lives and works in Barchester, England as an English professor at Barchester University. He's not terribly fond of his job, but is in complete and total rapture over Barchester Cathedral's library, where he spends most of his off time looking through ancient manuscripts and trying to solve the mystery of Barchester's connection to the Holy Grail. Yes. The Holy Grail. Arthur would spend summers at his grandfather's house in Barchester, learning about King Arthur and the Holy Grail from his grandfather. Little hints and winks from his grandfather lead Arthur to believe that somehow a connection exists between Barchester and the grail. There is the fascinating tale of Saint Ewolda, a martyred Saxon saint who was the founder of the cathedral 1500 years before, and who's Book of Ewolda has gone missing from the cathedral's library after a German bombing during World War 2. Arthur's been hired to write a new guide book for the cathedral, and he's been dragging his feet because he doesn't know the whole story of Ewolda, and doesn't feel he can properly write the guide without her story framing it.
Bethany Davis appears, and she's trouble for Arthur. She is an American there to digitize the ancient manuscripts in the library, much to Arthur's horror. He's very much old school and doesn't know much at all about computers, digitizing, or social media. His feelings of irritation towards Bethany are soon replaced with much warmer feelings as he discovers she is much more than a modern librarian and archivist. Together with Arthur's friends David and Oscar, the four set out to solve the mystery of Barchester, Ewolda, and the Holy Grail before time runs out and the ancient manuscripts are sold to fund much needed repairs to the cathedral.
This novel moves between the ancient life of the cathedral and the guardians of the Barchester secrets through the past 1500 years of history and Arthur's contemporary Barchester. It's a fascinating background to the modern puzzle Arthur and Bethany are trying to solve and makes for a much more interesting story. There's a whole bunch of English religious history thrown in, but it's easily digestible and makes an impact on just how long and entangled religion, books, and libraries have been in England. The modern movement to digitize fragile and valuable books and manuscripts is seen by some as horrible, but by others (such as myself) as a way to preserve for future generations precious works that could be lost to the elements of time. It is a way to share freely with the world some of the greatest treasures we have, but are now only accessible through expensive travel and appointments.
Arthur's a bit of a poop, but he is charming and hard to resist with his love of libraries, books, and the magic of religious traditions that, combined with ancient hymns, give him a sense of peace that nothing else ever has or will. He is so aware of the majesty of it all, and I found this part of Arthur very charming and sweet.
I just loved this book. It made me long to travel to England and experience the great cathedrals, smell the incense, feel the weight of history, and sense all those who have lived, loved, and protected the treasures (great and small) of their most holy places.
Rating: 5/6 for an enchanting tale, delightful characters, and a very clever story. Do they find the grail? Read it and find out.
Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.