The thing about Alex Jeffers’s Not Here. Not Now. is how incredibly well it shows off his ability to evoke other times and places (and yes, I get most would infer such from the title right there, but listen, sometimes I’m slow to twig to things, okay?). “Michael in the Library” dives all the way back to Rome, but not to any glorious figures of the time facing down historical moments of grand import. No, we get to travel with Michael as he heads to the library to do his daily work as a scribe, copying old, fading scrolls onto fresh papyrus to ensure the stories are not lost.
There is such charm in this character I don’t know where to begin. Despite him existing centuries ago, he felt as alive and as amusingly ever-so-slightly-awkward that he could well have been any number of my friends (or, y’know, myself) doing his daily slog of a job for small pay, making it a day at a time before walking home again. But it’s when he gets home that we meet the other character in the story, a slave Michael purchased with pretty much every coin he managed to save throughout his own and his parents’s lives. This slave—a survivor wounded and disabled in the arena—is obviously someone Michael cares for and loves, and the relationship between the two is the entire balance of the tale.
Using Michael’s work as a scroll transcriber, and their relationship, and the gentle revelations of the two men and their relationship to storytelling, Jeffers writes what is honestly one of the most moving historical pieces I’ve read in ages. These are not wealthy men. Only one of them is (somewhat) free. Both are living in a small space with little other than each other to work with. But there are stories, and there is writing, and in that, there is love, and the final moments of the tale will go down in my memory as one of the most brilliant acts of love I’ve ever read.