The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: A celebration and remembrance of centuries of hidden women’s history - book review -

It’s a place that has always been risky terrain for novelists... so imagining Jesus taking a wife (and the sister of Judas, no less) was certain to be a big gamble for Sue Monk Kidd.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 29th April 2020, 10:46 am
Updated Wednesday, 29th April 2020, 10:49 am
The Book of Longings
The Book of Longings

It’s a place that has always been risky terrain for novelists... so imagining Jesus taking a wife (and the sister of Judas, no less) was certain to be a big gamble for Sue Monk Kidd.

In his phenomenal global bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown reworked the old trope that Jesus married Mary Magdalen, but The Book of Longings is a completely different kettle of fish, approaching the exquisitely sensitive topic of the Christian Messiah’s marital status with a fascinating, fictional wife, and far more reverential empathy and historical insight.

Grounded in meticulous research, and evoking the political and cultural landscape of ancient Galilee with extraordinary authenticity, Kidd’s remarkable novel is an audacious feminist take on the story of the New Testament, and a highly ambitious undertaking from the author whose 2002 debut, The Secret Life of Bees, spent more than one hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Fully aware from the start that her project would be controversial in some quarters, Kidd is unapologetic about her portrayal of the central figure of Christianity, claiming that ‘the aim of the novelist is not to hold up a mirror to the world but to imagine what’s possible.’

And it is in that ‘lost’ area of Jesus’s life, between adolescence and the age of thirty when his ministry began, that Kidd portrays Jesus not as ‘God the Son’ but as a ‘fully human’ man who – in an age when the Jewish religion dictated that a man could ‘not abstain from having a wife’ – falls in love with Ana, daughter of the head scribe to Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas.

Twelve-year-old Ana is a rebellious and educated young woman, a gifted writer with a questioning and brilliant mind, who writes secret narratives about the matriarchs of the Scriptures and is determined to be ‘a chronicler’ of their lost stories.

Raised in a wealthy family in Galilee where he father Matthias is chief scribe to the tetrarch Herod Antipas, she is sheltered from the brutality of Rome’s occupation of Israel, but her adopted brother, Judas, consorts with the dangerous radicals who agitate against their rulers.

When she comes of age, Ana who now believes that ‘the entire world was a cage,’ is forced into a betrothal to elderly widower Nathaniel to further her father’s ambitions and it’s a prospect that horrifies her. But then a chance encounter with eighteen-year-old Jesus in the marketplace changes everything… his ideas, the ‘tiny fire’ in his remarkable eyes, and his passion are intoxicating.

When Nathaniel dies before the wedding, Ana instead marries Jesus, a union which evolves with love and conflict, humour and pathos in Nazareth, where Ana makes a home with Jesus, who is both ‘a peacemaker and a provocateur,’ his brothers, and their mother Mary. But Ana’s pent-up longings intensify amid the continued turbulent resistance to Rome’s occupation of Israel, partially led by Judas.

When Ana commits a brazen act that puts her in peril, she flees to Alexandria in Egypt, where startling revelations and greater dangers unfold, and she finds refuge in unexpected surroundings. Her fate will finally be decided during a stunning convergence of events, now considered to be among the most far-reaching in human history.

The Book of Longings is not for everyone – apart from the religious implications, the dialogue is occasionally out of step, and there are feminist flights of fancy which some may find far-flung, hovering too close to more contemporary 20th and 21st century thought processes – but the fictional Ana still remains a brave, inspirational and intriguing woman.

And that’s because this is essentially her show – a story not just of her love for and marriage to a remarkable preacher and radical reformer, but a woman in her own right who wanted to be a chronicler of ‘silenced’ women and their hitherto unrecognised achievements.

While Jesus remains a secondary player, staying chiefly out of view, Ana’s passion, determination, ambitions and personal conflicts make her a fully-rounded woman, and help both her life, her sense of self and her personality to take centre stage throughout.

With time and place in perfect harmony, and daringly conceived, The Book of Longings is essentially a celebration and remembrance of centuries of hidden women’s history… ‘I am Ana… I am a voice.’

(Tinder Press, hardback, £20)