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
Review copy supplied by Text Publishing