My Selection–The Book of Longings
Sue Monk Kidd is a master storyteller and her novel, The Book of Longings, is an impressive work of historical fiction. In it, Monk re-envisions the life of Jesus. While remaining true to many of the generally accepted historical facts, she adds a few “what if’s” and “couldn’t this have been likely” changes to the story.
Self-assertive women and feminism in biblical times
I think what impresses me most about the book is the inclusion of strong female characters. Dissatisfied with the societal repression of women, they find ways to stand up for themselves and make their voices heard.
The main protagonist is Ana. In the story, she becomes the wife of Jesus, but we meet her before that. As a young girl, she strongly desires to learn to read and write, a passion her father allows. Learning these skills was unusual for a female of that time:
“My father suggested that while God was busy knitting me together in my mother’s womb, he’d become distracted and mistakenly endowed me with gifts destined for some poor baby boy. I don’t know if he realized how affronting this must have been to God, at whose feet he lay the blunder.”
Despite Ana’s father allowing her to be educated, her parents both had a traditional view of women’s roles. They expected Ana to put her dreams aside, agree to an arranged marriage, and bear children.
Fortunately for Ana, her aunt strongly supports and encourages her to pursue her passions and her talent. She urges her to record her thoughts and passions, and presents Ana with an incantation bowl in which to inscribe a prayer:
“‘A man’s holy of holies contains God’s laws, but inside a woman’s there are only longings.’ Then she tapped the flat bone over my heart and spoke the charge that caused something to flame up inside my chest: ‘Write what’s inside here, inside your holy of holies.’”
Ana strongly desired to write her own story and that of other women. Her prayer, which became her lifelong quest, was that her life and her writing would be important.
“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
Monk illustrates how women of that time lacked many basic rights by including in the story the brutal rape of Ana’s friend Tabitha, and the horrible punishment Tabitha receives for reacting to the crime. Ana finds this unfairness intolerable and acts out to support her friend. Of her own actions, she says:
“The anger made me brave and the grief made me sure.”
Could Jesus have had a wife?
The church does not teach that Jesus had a wife, but as Monk points out in the author’s notes, it would have been unusual for a young man of that time not to have married. Perhaps, Monk speculates, because women during that time were so “invisible” and marriage was so ordinary, there was not enough historical significance to make the mention of a wife even worth recording:
“Of course, Christan New Testament Scripture does not say he was married, but neither does it say he was single. The Bible is silent on the matter. ‘If Jesus had a wife, it would be recorded in the Bible,’ someone explained to me. But would it? The invisibility and silencing of women were real things.” (Author’s note)
“There’s no record of Jesus from the age of twelve until the age of thirty.” (Author’s note)
The book is full of vivid imagery
Here are a few examples of the skilled way Monk paints a picture with words of what life for people of different economic classes was like in that time period:
“My bedstead was lifted off the floor on bronze legs, swathed in pillows dyed crimson and yellow, stuffed with beaten straw, feathers, coriander, and mint,…”
“Chickens, sheep, and donkeys. Manure and urine. Grunting and mating. The insect blizzard at the water trough. Hoof-churned dirt. It even came to me that these things might be holy, too, a sacrilege I kept to myself.”
Beautifully crafted lines of prose
Besides an engaging plot, many of the phrases in the book are so eloquently descriptive they make me envious of Monk’s writing abilities. For example:
“The days he was away crept on tiny, unhurried feet.”
“The temporary loss of him became less like a spear in my side and more of a splinter in my foot.” (This line refers to when Jesus would leave home for stretches of time, to work in other villages.)
“I heard the horses hooves, then a bone-scraping noise as if some heavy object was being dragged over the street stones.”
A believable plot
As I began reading The Book of Longings, I wondered how Monk would explain Ana’s absence from our accepted historical knowledge in such a way as to make her story feel believable. She did this masterfully.
I don’t want to share too much and give the plot away, but the plotline of the novel does provide a believable explanation of how Jesus could have had a wife, without her ever being a central figure in history.
“I told myself I would let Jesus have his hidden place that was his alone. We had our togetherness–why should we not have our separateness?”
The story, though intended to be fictional, elevated my understanding of the human emotions that were possibly a catalyst of the events that happened prior to the death of Jesus.
“‘I wanted to give the people a reason to revolt. I wanted to help bring God’s kingdom. I thought it was what he wanted, too. I believed if I forced his hand, he would see it was the only way, that he’d resist the soldiers and lead the uprising, and if not, that his death would inspire the people to do so themselves.’” (spoken by Judas)
The teachings of Jesus
Sue Monk Kidd was raised Baptist and in the following sentences Ana shares thoughts that may represent the very essence of the teachings of Jesus:
“‘Your goodness will not be forgotten,’ I told him. ‘Not a single act of your love will be squandered. You’ve brought God’s kingdom as you hoped–you’ve planted it in our hearts.’”
“It reassured me suddenly to think of God not as a person like ourselves, but as an essence that lived everywhere. God could be love, as Jesus believed…”
The human struggle to agree and get along
Throughout history, religion and differing opinions on many matters have been the cause of hostile feelings, but there have always been people who have tried to find a common ground:
“‘Anger is effortless, Lucian. Kindness is hard. Try to exert yourself.’”
“‘But yours is the God of the Jews,’ Diadora said. ‘I know nothing of him. It’s Isis I serve.’ Skepsis replied: ‘We will teach you about our God and you will teach us about yours, and together we’ll find the God that exists behind them.’”
Exquisite writing and a riveting plot.
There are so many other passages I would love to share, but if I did, I would almost need to retype the entire book!
I have enjoyed many of Sue Monk Kidd’s books and, for me, this one ranks as one of her best. Her fictional depiction of a married Jesus delicately deviates from conventional beliefs and handles this controversial concept in a well-thought-out way, without any claims of truth.
I suspect that most readers, regardless of their religious beliefs, will find her book to be an entertaining, thought-provoking, and enthralling story to read.
About the Author:
A New York Times best-selling and award-winning author, Sue Monk Kidd has written numerous books/memoirs exploring contemplative spirituality and feminist theology. Her four novels have all been on the New York Times bestseller list.
If you are interested in listening to her talk about writing The Book of Longings, I recommend this interview of her by Virginia Prescott.
As an editor of My Selections, the publication on Medium where this book review is published, I am excited to tell you a little about this publication!
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