~This review contains plot spoilers.~
Sue Monk Kidd’s bold fourth novel started as a what-if question: What if Jesus had a wife? Church tradition has always insisted that he remained unmarried, but she felt that, given the cultural norms of the Middle East at that time, it would have been highly unusual for him not to marry. Musing on the motivation for airbrushing a spouse out of the picture, on the last page of the novel Kidd asks, “Did [early Christians] believe making him celibate rendered him more spiritual?” Or “Was it because women were so often invisible?” Although The Book of Longings retells biblical events, it is chiefly an attempt to illuminate women’s lives in the 1st century CE and to chart the female contribution to sacred literature and spirituality.
Fourteen-year-old Ana is a headstrong young woman with a forthright voice and a determination to choose her own life. Privilege and luck are on her side: her father is the head scribe to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee; and the repulsive widower to whom she’s been betrothed dies, freeing her to marry Jesus, a travelling craftsman who caught her eye at the market. Ana’s aunt, Yaltha from Alexandria, is a major influence in her life. She had a rare chance at education and encourages her niece in her writing. Ana knows several ancient languages and fills every papyrus scroll she can get her hands on with stories of the women in the Bible. Yaltha also gives her an incantation bowl in which to write her deeply held prayers.
If you’re familiar with Kidd’s other work (such as The Secret Life of Bees and Traveling with Pomegranates), you know that she often explores the divine feminine and matriarchal units. Historically, Christianity has a poor record of acknowledging its patriarchal tendencies and redressing the balance. But Kidd imagines that, right at the beginning, Jesus valued women and was open to them having a life beyond domestic chores and childrearing. He involves Ana in his discussions about God and the nature of the Kingdom; they both see and take compassion on people’s suffering; together they are baptized by John the Baptist. And when Ana tells Jesus she doesn’t believe she is meant to be a mother – her mother and aunt took herbal potions and have passed on their contraceptive knowledge to her – he accepts her choice, even though childlessness could bring shame on both of them.
I appreciated this picture of a woman who opts for writing and the spiritual life over motherhood. However, Kidd portrays a whole range of women’s experiences: Jesus’s mother and sister-in-law submit to the drudgery of keeping a household going; Ana’s friend is raped and has her tongue cut out in an attempt to silence her, yet finds new ways to express herself; and another major character is a servant involved in the healing rituals at a temple to Isis. A practicing Jew, Ana finds meaning in other religious traditions rather than dismissing them as idolatry. She also participates in wider intellectual life, such as by reading The Odyssey.
Some descriptions make this novel sound like alternative history. If you’re expecting Ana to save the day and change the course of history, you will be disappointed. Ana is simply an observer of the events documented in the Bible. While she recounts the inspirations for some parables and healing incidents, during two years in exile with her aunt she only hears secondhand accounts of Jesus’s ministry. Her brother, a Zealot, disagrees with Jesus on how to usher in the Kingdom of God. By the time Ana returns to Jerusalem, the events leading to the crucifixion have already been set in motion; she can only bear witness. For her, life will continue after Jesus’s death, in a women-led spiritual community. From avoiding motherhood to choosing a monastic-type life, Ana has a lot of freedom. Some readers may be skeptical about how realistic this life course is, but the key, I think, is to consider Ana as an outlier.
Kidd has made wise decisions here: for the most part she makes her story line parallel or tangential to the biblical record, rather than repeating material many will find overly familiar. She takes Jewish teaching as a starting point but builds a picture of a more all-encompassing spirituality drawn from multiple traditions. Her Jesus is recognizable and deeply human; Ana calls him “a peacemaker and a provocateur in equal measures” and remembers him telling her what it was like growing up with the stigma of his illegitimate birth. The novel is rooted in historical detail but the research into the time and place never takes over. Engrossing and convincing, this is a story of women’s intuition and yearning, and of the parts of history that often get overlooked. It wouldn’t be out of place on next year’s Women’s Prize longlist.
The Book of Longings was released on Tuesday the 21st. My thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
I’m the last stop on a small blog tour for the audiobook release: if you’re interested in listening to the first hour of The Book of Longings, visit the blogs below and follow the links. Each one is hosting a 10-minute excerpt. The final one is available here.
Outwardly Marianne Power’s life was fine, but deep down she felt unhappy and unfulfilled. An Irish freelance journalist living in London, she was 36 and single. “There has to be more than just working and paying bills and buying crap we don’t need,” she felt. She’d been an obsessive reader of self-help books for years – Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway inspired her to leave her temp job at age 24 – but she realized that she’d never implemented most of the books’ lessons. So instead of just reading self-help, she set out to do self-help, one book per month, for a year (though it ended up being longer) to see if she could truly change her life.
January was a baptism of fire. Jumping in with that old favorite, Jeffers’s Feel the Fear, Power listed things she was afraid of and then did one per day: an outdoor swim on New Year’s Day, nude modeling for an art class, parallel parking, standup comedy, and skydiving. In subsequent months she tackled her disastrous finances (Money, A Love Story), tested out the law of attraction (The Secret), practiced lots of rejection therapy, worked on relinquishing control (F**k It), attended a Tony Robbins “Unleash the Power Within” seminar, and imagined what she’d want said at her funeral (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).
There came a point in the year when Power had to admit she was physically rundown and emotionally shattered. Months spent focusing on herself had alienated her from friends and family – even her mum, a wonderfully matter-of-fact character who believes in just getting on with life instead of moaning about it. A trio of truly useful books (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay) started to turn the tide, helping Power counter negative thoughts with positive affirmations and reminding her that self-help is futile because you can never go it alone. Being with other people who understand you, volunteering and exercise: these are the things that really help.
I have a particular weakness for year-challenge books, and Power’s is written in an easy, chatty style, as if Bridget Jones had given over her diary to testing self-help books for 16 months (“Do a budget, make a plan. Two phrases that made me break into a cold sweat”). If I have one tiny complaint, it’s that I might have liked a little more context on the books she chose. Help Me! is self-deprecating and relatable, with some sweary Irish swagger thrown in. I can recommend it to self-help junkies and skeptics alike.
“The dangerous expectation that can be created by self-help books is that if you’re not walking around like a cross between Mary Poppins, Buddha and Jesus every day you’re doing it wrong. You must try harder. … The higher I was setting my standards the more I was feeling like a failure.”
(I also loved the pep talk from a taxi driver who got depressed when doing a PhD on Thomas Hardy!)
Full disclosure: Marianne and I are Facebook friends and she arranged for me to be sent a proof copy of Help Me! The finished book was released by Picador on September 6th.