Set in Alexandra, Egypt, in 1883, An Imperfect Lens traces the cholera epidemic that ravaged the city. Taking the form of "unseen pulsing crescent moonshapes," the disease steadily breeds in the exposed sewage then feeds in the stomachs of the innocent. Death is almost instantaneous – a sharp pain in the stomach, lips tinged with blue, a loss of bowel control, and the body shrivels, turned gray like slate.
To the wealthy, the disease is a sign of the city's drinking and lack of morality; the less fortunate see it as a mark of God's will, a way for the rich to rid the city of an unwanted population. Three chemists from Paris - Louis Thuilliers, Emile Roux, and veterinarian Edmond Nocard - are dispatched directly from the laboratories of famous scientist Louis Pasteur to Alexandra, hoping to isolate the microbe.
People are instructed to always wash their hands and never eat exposed food from market stalls. But the microbes continue to spread - on the edges of bed linen, the shoes of unsuspecting servants, splashing in the city's puddles, streams and open sewers, on the surface of fruit, the edges of plates and cutlery.
Almost at once, Louis Thuilliers falls for Este Malina, the daughter of the city's Jewish doctor, when he meets her at dinner at the French consulate's home. The bored Este begins to help out in the laboratory, awakened to the possibility of a career in the sciences, perhaps with Louis at her side. She hopes to marry her paramour, but her imminent engagement and Louis's humble background irrevocably stand between them. Her father is also adamant that she must marry her own kind, the Jewish faith so much more than just a faith "but a cord that inevitably binds them."
Louis and Este's love affair plays out against a cholera epidemic that mysteriously evades the lens of the scientists. The other characters are equally caught in this simmer of city waste, men with their own personal demons. Eric Fortman, an Englishman from Liverpool, a good salesman and a sturdy traveler, is determined to start a new life in Alexandra as an importer and a businessman, a type of reinvented merchant prince who can slip money into the right hands at the right time. Marcus, Louis's rebellious young assistant, who one night beneath the boardwalk witnesses Masika, a hotel maid, succumb to the disease: "pools of fecal liquid gathering by her hips, the illness taking over her body like a colonial power, killing everything in its way."
The descriptions of a city on the brink are harrowing and exquisitely wrought. In the bazaar, "where the olive pits and the splashes of wine and overripe fruit mingle on the cobblestones with the blood of slaughtered animals," there are children with their hands out, crouching in doorways, flies stuck to their encrusted eyelids, and a young boy who suddenly becomes ill and violently dies, "the contents of his bowels flowing over the mud of the stone curb."
In Anne Rophie's Alexandria, the cholera is not simply content to attack the intestines of its victim. It also ravages pockets of the entire town, spreading hunger and despair, sending thousands to pray and others to shut themselves up in their rooms. Her young and impulsive characters are overwhelmed by idealism, torn apart and frustrated by their inability to fight this terrible disease, caught up in a race where everything they try proves useless.
At times An Imperfect Lens is hard to take, its depictions of the epidemic unwavering and resolute in their detail. The war between man and bacteria is endless and constantly changing, never won entirely by one side or the other. This novel is a timely reminder of the importance of research and science in a world governed by proof and evidence, where human life can be saved and where most diseases can hopefully be defeated.