The Book Of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
‘I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus…”. So begins this book. Jesus is not, however, the main character in this story, merely a side player. It is Ana we get to know.
We first meet her as a 14 year old. Ana was fortunate to have a tutor when she was growing up, so she is educated, unlike most women in her society. Set in Palestine and Egypt in the time of Jesus, there is a lot of the story we are already familiar with. The Romans have occupied the land for 77 years, and the time has come for a change. There is dissent and the Messiahs have been prophesised. We already know the story of Jesus and his disciples, but in this narrative we focus on the women.
Ana comes from a wealthy and privileged background. She lives with her parents. Her father works in the palace for Herod Antipas. She has also grown up with an adopted brother, the son of her mother’s cousin. Judas (yes, that one), has disappeared because he is an activist and is being threatened with execution by Herod.
Ana’s aunt Yaltha, the sister of her father, has come to live with them. She too is an educated woman, but women are not supposed to have opinions, let alone know how to write. Yaltha is not allowed to speak of her past, but it is clear to Ana that she hides a burden of sadness. Yaltha becomes Ana’s confidante, and helps her to bury the scrolls she has been writing – Ana is fascinated by the untold stories of the women in the bible and has been writing them down.
Ana’s parents want to marry her off to a rich widower. She is taken to the market for an arranged meeting, where she is rescued by Jesus as she faints in fear. Eventually she does meet Jesus again and she marries him and leaves her family home with her aunt as a companion, to live with Jesus’ extended family.
This book is very much about the treatment of women at that time. Women are separated from men at formal functions. After childbirth a woman is unclean for 40 days if she has a boy, and 80 days if she gives birth to a girl. A woman is most definitely a second-class citizen.
One of Ana’s friends is raped, but because she declares it publicly she has her tongue cut out and is banished from her village. Ana is so enraged she decorates the perpetrators office with her blood.
Ana and Yaltha go on a journey together to uncover the secret of Yaltha’s past mystery. They spend some time in Alexandria where connections are made. Eventually they make their way back to Jerusalem around the time Jesus is going to be crucified.
It’s a fascinating look at a different side of life. The author knows her history very well and paints a very clear picture of what daily life could have been like. There is even a map at the start of the book to help put it all in geographical perspective.
Ana is very much a 21st century woman in her thinking, and perhaps that helps us to relate to the telling of a story that could very possibly be true. Who knows? The men didn’t write it down. It’s a great read.
Reviewer: Rachel White
Published by Hachette