This is, unquestionably, the best book I’ve read in ages. As you, my readers, know, I’ve read a lot of terrific books lately, but The Book of Rachael is splendid.
Splendid in its conception, and splendid in its execution, Leslie Cannold’s first novel is an imagined life of the sister of Jesus. Nothing is known of her, not even her name, and to right this wrong that insults all women, Cannold has created a rich and turbulent life, almost as messianic as Jesus’ own.
Rachael is a passionate, intelligent girl, quick to learn and easily frustrated by the claustrophobic religious and cultural restrictions that bind her. Because she is female, she is doomed to spend her life walking three steps behind a man, cooking, cleaning and serving him. She may not learn to read, or question or join in men’s conversations. She needs a man’s permission and an escort in order to travel. She has no place before the law where any testimony she might offer counts for nothing. She must cover her body and keep out of sacred places when ‘unclean’. If raped or otherwise ‘sullied’ by sex outside marriage, she, not he, will be punished, by death or by being cast out penniless from her community. Should she not marry, she will be ostracised as a harlot, even if she joins the community of healing women from whom the community seeks help whenever they are ill.
Life for a female in 30 AD sounds familiar, although this is the 21st century, eh? I wonder if men reading this novel will feel the same sense of outrage when this cumulative catalogue of discrimination is revealed, and they recognise it as the persisting inequity that cramps the lives of women in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I hope so. Not since The Handmaid’s Tale has the perilous position of women been so cogently evoked.
Bindy, the ancient healer, encapsulates the dilemma for oppressed women everywhere: busy with an epidemic she tells Rachael not to indulge her rage though she feels it herself. There is no point, she says,
…because it will not be changed. Not by one woman alone. Not in my lifetime, and not in yours….Do not swim with rocks in your pocket, Rachael. Smother your rage. Dedicate your wit and passion where there is hope.’ (p177)
Yet The Book of Rachael is no feminist polemic. It is a wonderful love story, a story of two passionate natures, and of betrayal. For Rachael falls in love with Judah, her brother’s dearest friend and the one known to us as he who betrayed Jesus to the chief priests.
Because nothing is known of any sisters that Jesus almost certainly had, Cannold has given full rein to an imagined life,which makes the book ‘unputdownable’. Events conspire to make Bindy re-evaluate her advice to Rachael; ‘miracles’ of a less spiritual kind happen when persons lost are found again. Even the conclusion is not as might be expected.