Leslie Cannold, The book of Rachael

Bookcover Leslie Cannold The book of Rachael

The book of Rachael (Cover image: Courtesy Text Publishing)

For someone who doesn’t seek out historical fiction, I seem to have read a lot of it lately. Leslie Cannold’s The book of Rachael is the third historical novel I’ve read in succession – and it’s the third with an author’s afterword/postscript, which suggests to me some uncertainty in the writers about historical fiction. Tansley quoted Doris Lessing’s statement that fiction is “better at” the truth than the factual record. Brooks addressed concerns that the imagined record might be interpreted as fact. Cannold takes a different tack. Her book, like Brooks’, involves an imagined heroine telling a story about some “real” historical people, in her case Joshua (Jesus) and Judah (Judas). Cannold writes:

I wonder now whether it really makes sense to call this sort of writing historical fiction. Can setting entirely fictional characters to roam in the landscape of a multi-authored, oft-redacted religious tale really be described as historical? Not if the criteria include scholarly examination of verifiable, chronologically ordered events. So, I don’t think of “The book of Rachael” as historical fiction. I think of it as the bringing to life of a fictional character by evoking the time and place in which the character’s story is set. In “The book of Rachael” I have set the fictional sisters to roam across the historicised terrain of the gospels.

Hmm … I’m not going to get into definition discussions here. It is what it is, regardless of what we call it, and in this case it’s a first person story of Rachael, the invented sister of Jesus and wife of Judas. The rest as they say is (more or less) history … at least as far as the Jesus and Judas story goes. But, of course, there’s more to it than this. Cannold creates a whole life for Rachael from her childhood in Nazareth, as the second daughter of Yosef and Miriame, to her life post-Crucifixion. She’s a girl out of her time – something even her rather hard mother recognises (“Oh Rachael … how hard the world is for you”). She chafes under the strictures of being female (learning “in no uncertain terms what it meant to be a girl”). Like Brooks’ Bethia she wants to learn and so she listens in to her brothers’ lessons when she can. Also like Brooks’ Bethia, she channels some of her intelligence and curiosity into studying to be a healer, as an apprentice of the old crone Bindy. Then she meets Judah, angry young rebel to the gentler, more humble Joshua, and the book seems to shift a little on its axis.

Leslie Cannold was named one of Australia’s top twenty public intellectuals in 2005, and this year she was named Australian Humanist of the Year. She’s an academic, activist and ethicist with particular interest in women’s rights. She wrote The book of Rachael because, she said, “what kind of world painstakingly records the names and stories of important people’s brothers but not their sisters”. She wanted, in other words, to place women in the history, much like Anita Diamant wanted to do in The red tent, but fiction is not her usual métier and I think it shows.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s an entertaining read, and her evocation of the times, her well-researched imaginings of how women’s lives went are engaging and engrossing, particularly in the first half of the novel. But, the writing is often forced. I’m never quite comfortable with first person narrators who describe their own behaviour in terms that are usually used by a third person, such as “sobbing as if my heart would break” and “hissing like a cat, I …”. The romance with Judah is also laid on a bit thick. Almost every time they meet – he is often away fighting – sex is explicitly described. I don’t think I’m prudish, but it did start to read more like a boddice-ripping romance than serious historical fiction. Here’s an example:

Judah blocked my mouth with a kiss. The sort of kiss that involved him sucking my lower lip until my breasts heaved and my skin seemed to sparkle like stars. The sort of kiss where I might forgive him almost everything.

This is just one of many episodes. “Enough already”, I wanted to cry. Yes, feminists are women too, but passion can be conveyed so much better through a little restraint. Just look at Jane Austen, whom Cannold must love, given her sneaky tribute: “It is a truth widely known that the desire of the amorously infatuated to hear their lover’s name, to speak it and hear it spoken aloud, make them tiresome company”.

There are, however, some beautiful descriptions, such as this:

Of these years, little is left to me by way of coherent memory. Instead, what I recall is like a mosaic, vividly coloured tiles affixed at different points on a large white wall: discrete scenes of colour and movement floating in a sea of empty whitewashed space.

Cannold handles the complex stories surrounding Jesus (Joshua) with a lovely subtle restraint, neither labouring their miracle aspects nor discounting them. I don’t want to give away the end – beyond what everyone knows of the biblical history. I found the conclusion for Rachael moving and redemptive but it didn’t have the feminist punch I expected from the way the novel started. Does that matter? Perhaps not. I’d love to hear what others say.

The book of Rachael
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 9781921758089

Review copy supplied by Text Publishing

19 thoughts on “Leslie Cannold, The book of Rachael

      • You can always slurge on some of that rub-on glitter. Go on, live a little.

        I don’t like historical fiction as I think it’s really hard to produce a genuine voice and keep it on track. I just broke my rule against historical fiction and bought Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg.

        • Ah, I look forward to your review on that. I’ve read a few of Coetzee’s but the earliest I’ve read is Disgrace so I need to go back to some of the earlier ones.

          Oh, and I have mixed feelings about historical fiction … it’s not always the “voice” that bothers me. I think that can be played around with but it’s getting that balance between fact, fiction and truths. Some writers don’t quite get it. Mantel did in Wolf Hall I thought, for example. And, as I recollect, so did Atwood in Alias Grace.

    • Don’t the vampires in Twilight have sparkling skin? I haven’t read the books, but I keep hearing jokes about “sparkly vampires.” Is this whole lip-sucking cat-hissing thing just a front for the world’s most subtle cross-genre crossover?

      • They absolutely do! They sparkle in the sunlight.

        And I must here state that I only read the books so that I could critique them from a place of knowledge. And yes, they are horrendous.


        • Prose-horrendous, or ideas-horrendous, or just all-over-horrendous? What’s the appeal? Not the appeal for you, I mean, but why are they more successful than other YA novels?

        • Oops, I’m so sorry for the delay in replying! Pretty much all-over horrendous, and yet strangely addictive at first. The prose is this bundle of cliches and Mills and Boon-esque (well, I assume, I’ve never read M&B) metaphors that make you cringe (often because they don’t really make sense… I wish I had the book with me so I could quote one). But more than that, I find the ideas horrendous. The depiction of femininity is very upsetting – Bella is a girl whose entire life revolves around Edward, who controls her movements and forbids her from seeing her friends. She’s chastised for being sexually attracted to him, and when she’s finally agreed to marry him and they have sex, she ends up beaten and bruised because of his “vampire strength”. Another part that made me angry was when the wolf-guy, Jacob, who is in love with her, kisses her against her will and then when she tells her dad this happened, her dad high-fives the guy. It’s been a long while since I read them, so I may be rambling, but that’s a few of the points that stuck with me. As to why they’re popular? I think because it’s about an all-consuming love, about a guy who will do anything for the girl, protect her, perceive her as beautiful and have her as his whole world… so long as she behaves the same way towards him and doesn’t have other male friends 😉

      • Ha, it could be, DKS. Tony Jordan on the back cover says “read it as a historical page-turner, as a moving romantic tragedy or as a parable about equality”. That gives a sense of its “crossed-ness”.

        And, Hannah, I admire your dedication to the art of criticism!

  1. Calling novels about Biblical characters historical fiction makes about as much sense as calling novels about the Greek gods and myths historical fiction. Although David Malouf did write Ransom which did seem more like historical fiction than anything else.

  2. A lovely review, wg. Yes, I got just a little bit weary of Rachael’s frequent mentions of moistness in a place she couldn’t quite name.

  3. Good review. I enjoyed both Cannold and Brook’s effort but preferred Cannold’s more. I felt that Cannold had less of the romance and more of the hard real environment of the place and time she wrote about. Brook’s heroine dashed about too much in an artificial way to shadow Calab and tell his story which lacked a certain depth of what must have been a massive cross cultural crossing. As well, though she described some of the privations of the time I didn’t ‘feel’ them as curbing the behaviour of the people in the novel as the privations of Rachael’s time in that story.

    As for the flowery writing about sparkling skin and sucking face I just put that down to women experiencing their sexuality in and utterly different way to men. A long time ago in the country of youth, though thee were fabulous occasions, the erogenous zones never had that much blood rush to give off light and ‘sparkle’.

    • Welcome to Whispering Gums Steadfast, and thanks for engaging in the discussion. It’s always great when people read a book I’ve written about some time ago and comment. It keeps the book alive!

      I appreciate your putting a different point of view to mine too … and arguing the case so eloquently. I like your point about Brooks not getting the full depth of the “cultural crossing” though I put it down more to her using Bethia’s voice rather than, perhaps, multiple voices.

      Re the flowery writing. Again I take your point. It’s probably just that in writing I tend to prefer (with exceptions, there are always exceptions) more spare writing. “A long time ago in the country of youth”! I like it!

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