The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
This is a profound and intense book; on one level a love story, on another the account of a woman’s search to be herself. The author has used immense research to not only produce a novel of a first century woman’s life, but also to tackle an element of the story of the life of Jesus, giving a female view of his actions and fate. It covers a long period of time, from a girlhood in a divided home and the restless ambition to write, through the dangers of a woman’s life, to the mundane details of an existence in an extended family, through desire and danger. Running throughout is a theme of female collective strength, of a power that defies definition. It is a compelling read, as Ana recounts her story against a background of distinctive setting of historical urban life and desert fringes, of the dangers of proximity to power. The relationships that shape her life, with men who lift her or endanger her, with women who encourage her and convince her to hold fast to her convictions and ambitions. Ana fits herself into a story that has shaped much of the world, of Roman dominance and those who had ambitions within it, as well as those who challenged it. Not that it is a fact filled book – it is written in a flowing natural style that links the adventures of Ada as a story of a life in all its elements. A book that draws you in and is memorable for all the right reasons, this is a book to tell others of, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable novel.
The book opens with Ada encountering her unusual aunt Yaltha, a keeper of secrets and an inspirer of dreams. She gives Ada a gift that will stay with her, a way of challenging the status quo and enshrining her rebellion. Ada’s parents are a bitter mother who has adopted a boy, Judas, orphaned by Roman cruelty, and an administrator for the cruel local ruler, Herod Anitpas. Wanting to gain material benefits and impress his employer, her father forcibly her arranges her betrothal to a hated older man who has power but no other redeeming features. While Ada has never been indulged, she has had the unusual benefit of an education which has meant she has been able to search the Jewish scriptures for the untold stories of women, which she has collected on precious scrolls. It is in seeking a hiding place for her writings that she encounters Jesus, a man seeking a place to pray and to reflect on his life. As Ada encounters women who reflect different possibilities, Tabitha and Phasaelis, she realizes that she is not the only woman suffering as a result of her family’s ambition. Her own destiny will require immense courage to follow; while it will contain love and hope, it will also involve some sacrifice and fear.
This book is a memorable read in so many ways. It reflects a life of significance but also secrecy, of the necessary fight for survival to achieve the deepest of longings. It has much to say in a vivid way of how women could be limited and confined, but also of how their own courage and strength could change their own life and those around them. It cleverly combines the known and the imagined in a positive way, providing a version of well known stories as well as maintaining the pace of Ada’s own progress. I thoroughly recommend this thought provoking book.