Holy Mary Mother of God! This book is bloody brilliant! Take a bible story – hell, not just any bible story, lets take THE Bible Story, and retell it using the voices of those who would otherwise remain mute. Lets take Jesus, for example, and make him a supporting actor in someone else’s story – like for example his sister. This is Leslie Cannold’s starting premise – and boy does she deliver.
Rachael, Jesus’ younger sister (and it’s widely accepted that he did have siblings – thanks for that link Lisa) is a smart, stubborn, fiercely independent young girl distinctly attuned to the injustices of having being born female. At one point she even chops off all her hair in a bid to shed that most visible of female attributes (Scout Finch all over). Rachael has a seemingly unaffectionate mother, whose bitterness she only comes to understand when she becomes a mother herself, and is haunted throughout her life by the fate of her beloved older sister who is brutally raped and subsequently condemned to an equally brutal marriage to her attacker (no, you didn’t misread that). As a child, Rachael learns to read (something women are forbidden or not considered worthy to do); she demonstrates an affinity with languages, and in time dedicates herself to the study of midwifery – a pursuit which at critical junctures becomes distinctly political. Later, as a married woman, Rachael practices birth control so that she might delay the child-rearing years in favour of travel and adventure. And all of this serves to illuminate the story brewing in the background; that of Jesus – Rachael’s brother, and Judas – Rachael’s husband.
But to briefly summarise the key point (‘cos you already know how the background story ends): Rachael is basically a woman to whom most modern women today can actually relate. Sorry Eve, Lot, Mary Magdelene – it’s not that I don’t think women sometimes lead men astray, or are sometimes guilty of looking back nostalgically, or sometimes like to have a good time/have sex before/outside of marriage – it’s just that I’d hazard a guess that if the girls had been telling the story then we might have been left with QUITE a different picture.
Cannold’s novel is fiction. She never claims it to be anything else. Having said that, I’ll admit that henceforth I’ll have a hard time thinking of the historical Jesus without considering the influence of the women in his life; his sisters, mother, aunties, lover/s etc – just the same as I struggle to picture the biblical Dinah in 1 dimension as opposed to the 3 offered by Anita Diamante in the Red Tent. As well I should. But I think that the enduring point made by both theses authors is not so much what they have been capable of imagining and so skillfully portraying, but what their fictions represent. They remind us, very powerfully but so very simply, that there are always, always several sides to the same story- and so-called “divine” stories should be treated no differently.