Some feminist writing I can’t stomach well. Most is okay. But I often find that when politics of any sort becomes the raison d’être for fiction or other art, it too often dominates the affair, like a loud drunk at a dinner party. Or the New York Yankees in 1950’s baseball.
I was intrigued by the cited premise of Patricia Storace’s work, The Book of Heaven. This is supposed to be about four Biblical or legendary tales retold through the viewpoint of women. The four individual stories are lyrical–quite marvelous really. They are gently strung together by astronomy, and by notable women at the center of each. A skeptic might suggest they are really four independent novellas. And they can be largely enjoyed for the writing one would expect a poet to bring to fiction, and for an aching sense of the persecution of the particular women in the tales as well as women in general.
If you are familiar with the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, I can relate that these stories are a bit like his novels: recounting human history on a different world. So this is something like fantasy, but more accurately, alternate world fiction.
The prologue introduces an alternative to the Genesis creation story, as well as Ms Storace’s very lyrical prose. I adjusted to it quickly, and enjoyed it. I don’t think this book is fit for a fast read.
Following this, we get the story of Abraham told from the view of Sarah. It’s not the same story from Genesis. But it could have been. The patriarch is a man of his age, and that’s not a good thing, at least for the reader’s sensibility–not to mention his family. The sacrifice of Isaac is set up in a very interesting way, then the resolution … Well, many Christian readers will know how it’s presented in the Bible, and I can anticipate some literalists would find it rather disturbing to say the least.
The second tale is not of any Biblical character I recognized, although it had shades of Genesis 6:4.
The publisher blundered on the liner notes with regard to the third story, “The Book of Rain.” Job’s wife? Not quite. Try his daughter, rejected by (Job) for not showing proper mourning at a funeral, and deposited into prostitution. Job eventually loses everything, but it’s more of a side note in the story.
The last tale is about the Queen of Sheba.
This book is not for the faint of heart. It contains great brutality, including slavery, rape, and child abuse. And probably worse, the patriarchs possess few to no redeeming features. Remember Abraham’s clumsy attempts in Genesis to pass his wife off as his sister? In this novel he does so to swindle unsuspecting men. In one episode, after his wife is showered with jewelry by her new lover, the husband’s hired thugs kidnap the woman, murder the man, and return to their master with the woman and all the loot.
This is probably the best work I’ve read in months. I recommend it, unless your sensitivity to altered biblical accounts or to inhumane treatment of women is high.