The Book of Longings…
About the Book:
Ana is a rebellious young woman, a gifted writer with a curious, brilliant mind, who writes secret narratives about the neglected and silenced women around her. Raised in a wealthy family in Galilee, she is sheltered from the brutality of Rome’s occupation of Israel. Ana is expected to marry an elderly widower to further her father’s ambitions, a prospect that horrifies her. A chance encounter with the eighteen-year-old Jesus changes everything: his ideas and his passion are intoxicating.
Taking Ana on a journey she could never have imagined, THE BOOK OF LONGINGS is a glorious evocation of a time and a place where astounding events unfolded, and of one woman’s fate when she fights to make her voice heard.
When I first began to think about how I was going to review this novel, I was determined to leave religion and belief in God on the doormat, tucked out of the way like a pair of clunky boots that threaten to trip people up as they walk through the door. I wanted to review this novel in the same manner as I would any other work of historical fiction. But a discussion on social media that I have taken part in that was sparked by a somewhat negative review, which in my opinion was not entirely reflective of the novel in its entirety, highlighted to me how many people will approach this novel, or avoid it, based on their own views about those clunky boots. Realistically, everything I read is approached within the context of my own views; I’d like to think that I am worldly enough to view an issue from all perspectives but to believe that is misguided. It is simply not possible for me to view any issue from every perspective because I haven’t lived a hundred lives. All I can do is educate myself as fully as possible and think, disseminate, discuss, and do it all over again, indefinitely. So, in the end, I decided that it would be beneficial for me to share, for the purposes of context, a few things about what I brought with me to the reading table with regards to this novel.
I was brought up Catholic under the wings of my devout grandparents and it was customary within our family for all children to have their own copy of an illustrated children’s bible. I loved that book and I read it cover to cover many times over throughout childhood. I still have it and I have shared it with my own children. In my teenage years, I found myself living for a time with a wonderful family who were devout Christians of the sort that worship in a very different way to Catholics. It came to my attention for the first time in my life that there were different versions of the bible. Many a Sunday afternoon was spent with me relentlessly questioning the differences with the head of the family, who was also a church leader, he in turn indulging me with theological discussion that my questioning mind soaked up with relish. I want to point out that this family never once attempted to convert me to their religion. But they shared their love of the bible and theological discussion with me and subsequently taught me a lot. In this time with them, I read the bible in its entirety. Don’t go getting all excited and signing me up as team captain to your bible trivia team. I read it, but I didn’t memorise it. There’s some really brutal and depraved content in the bible, a lot of which has been used to justify the most appalling behaviour throughout time. But there’s also some pretty amazing stuff. I approached reading the ‘grown up’ bible much the same way as my children’s bible: with intent. Within the context of The Book of Longings, I came to it as a person who is reasonably familiar with the bible and as someone who believes Jesus existed. That’s it. I share this with you so you can evaluate my opinion of this novel within the context of knowing that my perspective on it, while informed of many different things that have shaped me into who I am today, is in part influenced by those two things. How could it not be? I don’t normally introduce reviews in this manner, but I felt this novel was a special case given its topic. I’ll likely not include this introduction on the Goodreads version of my review, the last thing I want is to invite religious debate from a whole heap of people I don’t know. And you might have noticed as well, I haven’t actually spoken about religion specifically, which is nice way to lead in to talking about the actual novel (at last, I hear you say) as The Book of Longings is not a novel about religion, nor is it a piece of Christian propaganda. It is many things, but most definitely neither of those.
‘I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder. He said he heard rumblings inside me while I slept, a sound like thunder from far over the Nahal Zippori valley or even farther beyond the Jordan. I don’t doubt he heard something. All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night. That my husband bent his heart to mine on our thin straw mat and listened was the kindness I most loved in him. What he heard was my life begging to be born.’
The Book of Longings is a love story. That can’t be overlooked, nor dismissed. The quote above is the opening passage to the novel and it speaks volumes about the overall intent. In many ways Sue Monk Kidd offers us a romanticised view of Jesus. Ana falls in love with him at first sight and given that he works as a stonemason hauling slabs of rock, those soulful eyes that drew her in were probably accompanied by a pretty fit physique. He is charismatic and fearless, indeed, his marriage proposal to Ana consists of standing between her and an angry mob while they are stoning her. He manages to talk them down, save a life, and gain a wife all at once. In the scheme of grand gestures, it’s a good one. But it’s also classic Jesus, isn’t it, when you think about it. If you reference the many parables about him, this is exactly the sort of thing he would be likely to do. In her author note, Sue Monk Kidd says that she shaped the character of Jesus from a multitude of sources, and this has resulted in a well fleshed out version of him. His consideration towards his mother, his selflessness when it came to helping others and advocating for them, his role as the eldest son and peacemaker within the family, his devotion to his faith; these things about him within the novel made sense to me, they equated with my personal version of who he was. But it was Jesus the husband that offered the most insight into him as a person. His love for Ana was second only to his love for God. He understood her need to write because it mirrored his need to minister. He was a progressive husband, accepting Ana’s use of a contraceptive, not because he questioned the purpose of marriage, but because he loved her and accepted what she felt deep inside about motherhood and her own self. And yet, while it might seem as though he has been painted as a saint, there was a very human side to him that demonstrated frustration, anger, and selfishness. He left his wife to become a wandering minister, remember what I said above? His love for Ana was second to his love for God. But their relationship allowed for this, it was bigger than just the two of them. It had room for God, for Ana’s dreams, and for each of them to walk their own path without having to choose one over the other. In terms of love stories, it’s an impressive one.
‘I will think only of him. I will give him more than my presence; I will give him the full attention of my heart.
That would be my parting gift to him. I would go with him to the end of his longings.’
I’ve talked about Jesus enough now because this novel is not about him. It’s about Ana and the way in which women have been silenced throughout history. Sue Monk Kidd offers countless examples of this in action, specifically and generally. From Ana having her scrolls of her own writing burnt by her mother to Tabitha having her tongue cut out by her father as a punishment for publicly accusing a Roman soldier of raping her, over and over, women are silenced. The focus of Ana’s writing is profound, she pulls from the scriptures the women who have been wronged and gives their story a voice. This later extends to writing about Tabitha, her aunt, Phasaelis, the first wife of Herod, and the many other women she knew who had been wronged and then silenced. This is where this novel’s power as a feminist text comes into its own.
‘I could feel the tiny lump of anger tucked beneath my awe. A half million scrolls and codices were within these walls, and all but a handful were by men. They had written the known world.’
The passion Jesus has for his own path gives rise within Ana to embrace her own. When she is exiled to Alexandria, she discovers a very different view towards women and an acceptance of them as forward-thinking individuals. And yet, perhaps because she has seen the two extremes, she knows that she must preserve her writing because there will come a time when she will once again be silenced. The weight women throughout the ages, one step forward until you are forced to take two steps backwards. There have been times throughout history where women have enjoyed freedoms and access to education, culture, and society, only to see it revoked through a change in politics or religion. The contrasting of Alexandria against Jerusalem was but a snapshot of this that can be projected through time.
‘They speak of Jesus as having had no wife,’ Lavi told me. That was a conundrum I puzzled over for months. Was it because I was absent when he travelled about Galilee during his ministry? Was it because women are so often invisible? Did they believe making him celibate rendered him more spiritual? I found no answers, only the sting of being erased.’
In this novel, Judas, betrayer of Jesus, is Ana’s much beloved brother.
‘‘Judas means to have his revolution, Ana. If Jesus doesn’t bring it about peaceably, Judas means to ignite it by force. The surest way to incite the masses is for the Romans to execute their Messiah.’
‘He will deliver Jesus to the Romans,’ I whispered. Saying the words, I felt like I was falling off the edge of the world. During the time we’d been in Egypt, I’d stored away a thousand tears, and I let them loose now.’
Making Judas Ana’s brother proved itself over and over as a solid narrative tool. It offers us an intimate look at the relationship between Judas and Jesus, united in a wish for the Romans to be gone from their lands but at odds in the way in which this should be achieved. Both radicals, but one violent whilst the other non-violent. As brother-in-law to Jesus, Judas was trusted, despite his proclivities. They both loved Ana and were united in their desire to see her protected from Herod. Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was the force that propelled Ana out of exile and consequently clarified the direction in which her life was set. It was also a terrific plot enhancer, let’s face it. Brother betrays brother-in-law and consequently breaks his sister’s heart two-fold. It was all desperately sad and the only thing worse than the crucifixion itself was viewing it through the eyes of a wife watching her husband die with her brother nearby regretting his actions and begging for forgiveness. Honestly, even though you know how this is all going to pan out, the tension was rife I was absolutely bereaved.
‘In these last minutes, what did he most want to hear – that he’d been seen and heard in this world? That he’d accomplished what he’d set out to do? That he’d loved and been loved?’
There has been some criticism levelled at this novel for its lofty and poetic prose interspersed with the more mundane throughout the dialogue, particularly between Ana and Jesus. I think this is unjust and to be honest, nit-picking. I found this novel to be beautifully written, evocative and immersive. I haven’t ever before read a novel set in the first century and whilst I’ll acknowledge that with going so far back in time, it’s likely there is more fiction than fact here, even so, it was all so interesting. Alexandria particularly is conjured with a vivid atmosphere that I found fascinating. Any criticism of Sue Monk Kidd’s writing within this novel seems to me suggestive of the person doing so having more of a problem with the subject matter of the novel than the writing itself. I couldn’t fault it.
‘Then he rose and, opening the door, stared toward the valley with the same deep, pure gaze he’d cast on me. I went to stand beside him and looked in the same direction as he, and it seemed for an instant I saw the world as he did, orphaned and broken and staggeringly beautiful, a thing to be held and put back right.’
I would hate to think that people may deliberately avoid this novel because of the impression that it may be overly biblical or an ode to Jesus and consequently Christian in its intent. This really is Ana’s story, the fictional wife of Jesus, and how she fought to be heard. I feel as though by being so bold as to make Ana the wife of Jesus and an active player within his story as opposed to a woman married to someone less remarkable during that era, is to afford her the status of being remarkable herself. The Book of Longings is a powerful story of female agency first and foremost. It is ambitious and visionary, an exquisite and unforgettable work of historical fiction.
Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a review copy of The Book of Longings.
About the Author:
Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, spent 2.5 years on the New York Times bestseller list, and has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. THE MERMAID CHAIR and THE INVENTION OF WINGS each went to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and stayed on the list for many months. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES was long-listed for the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction), and was turned into an award-winning film. Sue is also the author of several acclaimed non-fiction books including the New York Times bestseller TRAVELLING WITH POMEGRANATES, co-written with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor. Sue lives in North Carolina with her husband Sandy.
The Book of Longings
Published by Hachette Australia – Tinder Press
Released 28th April 2020
11 thoughts on “Reflecting on The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd”
Brilliant review Theresa. I admit it’s one I’d decided not to read due to its Christian themes, but now I’m very tempted and intrigued.
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Thank you, I’m glad I’ve tempted you! It really is terrific historical fiction. I really admire her bravery in writing a book like this, about Jesus without really being about him.
Oh, this is perfectly said, Theresa! I think you’ve covered it so beautifully. You are so right in that it is first and foremost a love story. I really enjoyed this read, and after I was finished found myself pondering it quite a bit. (And googling the places and scenery, and longing to travel there!) I admit it took me a little time to get into, in the earlier chapters I found young Ana’s behaviour and inner dialogue a little too mature and contemporary feminist for a teenage girl in biblical times, but that’s really a personal taste thing. As Ana grew older I very much fell into the story, and was quite hooked! I can understand why the author was compelled to explore this idea (as she explains so respectfully in her author’s note), and to bring the time period to life and play with lyrical prose, and I applaud her bravery in doing so. And bravo to you for such a lovely, self-reflecting review!
(As a side note, have you read THE RED TENT by Anita Diamant? One of my absolute favourites! I do quite love fictional imaginings of forgotten biblical women…) xo
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Thank you Kim, I appreciate this.
The Red Tent has come up as a recommendation a few times to me since yesterday! It sounds like I definitely need to read it. 😊
Yes! And if you do, I would of course love to hear what you think! 🙂 xo
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You’re right there too about the beginning, I had to keep reminding myself Ana was only 14, she was certainly more adult in her thought processes and even her ability to write about topics with such conviction.
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Thanking for sharing your thoughts on this one Theresa. I wasn’t sure if I would or wouldn’t, even though I did enjoy Invention of Wings. You certainly seem to be adding to my groaning TBR pile tonight 🙂
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I’ve had a good run with books lately, or at least, until that last one! But I’ve been enjoying quite a few that are different, which I love. Glad to be of service! 😄
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I loved your review. I totally agree with all your points.
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Thank you! I’m yet to read another book that has enthralled me as much.