Found via: Publisher's Weekly 2/22
I'm almost as interested in new spins on religious stories as I am in new spins on old fairy tales. I blame a childhood spent in the Christian Reformed Church. And being introduced to Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal at an impressionable age. Lamb may actually have been the first time I read a book that took on Mary Magdalene - that version of the character certainly left an impression on me, anyway, so I was interested in seeing how Gormley's version compared.
Mariamne (the Greek version of Miryam, called Mari by her family) of Magdala is the middle child and eldest daughter of a prosperous sardine merchant. While she often disagrees with her brother, she considers her father wise and fair - when an elderly member of the community asked to marry Mari, her father listened to her plea to reject the proposal and instead arranged a marriage with a handsome young man. Unlike many other girls in arranged marriages, Mari is gleefully anticipating her wedding day - until a plague befalls Magdala, cause Mari to fall ill and taking the lives of her beloved father and fiancé.
With the family business in peril and her older brother now in charge of the family, Mari must accept the proposal of the older man who first asked for her, all in the hopes of preserving the family's business and honor. As the new wife and youngest woman in a new household, Mari is berated, humiliated and ignored by her husband's daughter-in-law. Her only escape is in the simple spells an Egyptian mystic woman teaches her - first a way to escape the mundane world into a peaceful spirit garden, then a spell for healing, which all too easily is turned into a spell for doing harm.
In the spirit garden, Mari begins to hear voices - and soon they are coming to her even outside of the spirit realm, encouraging her to use the magic she knows to escape her unbearable life as the wife of a much older and unsympathetic man. As the voices become harder to ignore, Mari begins to wonder who is truly wielding the power; is she in control of the voices? Or are the voices in control of her? As her behavior grows more erratic, it becomes clear there's only one person who can save Mari - a young traveling rabbi known for his miracle and humble ways, who invites even tax collectors and the demon-possessed to travel with him and spread the word of the Lord.
I thought Mari's story was well done, even if it didn't have the humor and spunk of Moore's Lamb. However, this isn't just Mari's story. Shoehorned in somewhat awkwardly are also occasional chapters about Matthew, the son of Magdala's tax collector who goes on to be a tax collector himself. Mari and Matthew cross paths early on in the novel, and again later as they seek Rabbi Yeshua (the man who we know today as Jesus). Matthew's chapters really stick out for a couple of reasons. First, none of the summaries, either that I've seen online or on the book itself, mention Matthew's existence. Second, his chapters are told from a third person omniscient perspective, compared to Mari's first person chapters. Third, his chapters come about completely randomly. There's no discernible rhyme or reason for why a Matthew chapter appears, nor did his contributions really seem to contribute that much to the overall story, except as further illustration for how good Yeshua is, as he'll allow even a tax collector and a formerly possessed woman to join as followers. And really, I'm pretty sure even non-Christians have heard by now that Jesus was a pretty open and accepting guy.
The front jacket copy brings up lots of ideas that just don't pan out in the final novel. "Who is Mary Magdalene? A prostitute? A saint? A madwoman? A goddess?" Only one of these tantalizing possibilities is addressed in the text - that of being a madwoman. The extensive author's note addresses the prostitution allegation, but nothing about being a saint or even a goddess. I was also hoping more time would have been spent looking at Mary as a follower of Jesus - instead, joining up with Jesus is essentially the end of the novel.
If you're a hardcore fan of fiction about Biblical figures, then I would recommend this one, otherwise consider this a title you can skip.