THE BOOK OF LONGINGS
By Sue Monk Kidd
Tinder Press/Paperback/418 pages/ $29.95/Available at bit.ly/BookL_Kidd/4 stars
If Jesus had had a wife, what would she have been like? What if she had been a writer?
American author Sue Monk Kidd imagines this in her superbly lyrical fourth novel, The Book Of Longings.
Fourteen-year-old Ana dreams of being a scribe like her father. But the reality of being a well-born young woman in first-century Galilee is that she is destined not for authorship, but an arranged marriage, a child bride to a cruel widower.
Ana is surrounded by men who connect her, a tad too conveniently, to the biblical story. Her father serves the despot Herod Antipas; her brother Judas is a zealot socialist whose name will become a byword for treachery; and a young stonemason whose eye she catches one day in the marketplace, turns out to be Jesus of Nazareth.
But it is the stories of women, forgotten ones, that she intends to chronicle.
Kidd has explored the sacred feminine in earlier works, such as her debut novel The Secret Life Of Bees (2002), in which a trio of African-American sisters in 1964 South Carolina worship "Black Mary", or "Our Lady Of Chains", drawing on their heritage as the descendants of slaves.
Now she achieves something quietly remarkable by placing a woman writer in the empty space next to the Messiah.
Ana and her husband share a loving union founded on empathy. Both are outcasts who seek out the vulnerable, rebels prone to speaking truths at great cost to their safety. He listens to the longings inside her. "What he heard," she says, "was my life begging to be born."
Yet their marriage, however progressive, is not an easy one. Ana endures the pressures of her in-laws, the demands of housekeeping and a grinding poverty that deprives her of the time and means to write.
It is clear, too, that she and her idealistic husband have vastly different callings, and their paths must diverge or risk one subsuming the other.
Ana is not present for most of the milestones of Jesus' story: the miracles, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper. The narrative follows her instead to Alexandria, Egypt - coincidentally home to one of the greatest libraries of the ancient world - where she embarks on her own journey of discovery. Later, she will find herself erased from posterity as a result.
Kidd's writing is often gorgeous. Ana describes life in quarantine: "Day and night I climbed onto the roof in quest of stars and rain and birdsong." She says of the feeling of grief: "In the hidden forest in my chest, the trees slowly lost their leaves."
Ana's feminist ideals may seem anachronistic for the time she lived in, and the novel's message of empowerment can verge on platitudinous.
But Kidd does effectively locate her heroine's act of writing in an ancient, if often overlooked, history of women's scripture that goes back to Enheduanna, the Sumerian priestess who signed her name to The Exaltation Of Inanna in 2300BC, the earliest known poet to have her name recorded.
A hymn that Ana composes in the book, Thunder: Perfect Mind, is based on an actual document found in 1945 among the Nag Hammadi texts buried in Egypt, believed to have been by a female author.
"When I am dust," Ana's prayer goes, "sing these words over my bones: she was a voice." Invented this voice may be, but it is nevertheless a balm to hear.
If you like this, read: The Testament Of Mary by Colm Toibin (Scribner, 2012, $19.78, Open Trolley.com.sg). In this Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novella, an elderly Mary speaks cynically to Jesus' followers years after his death, even as she gives voice to her love for her son and the limits of motherhood.
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