Book Review: The Book of Longings

“I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus”

Sue Monk Kidd was inspired to write a novel about the fictional wife of Jesus after reading an article in National Geographic magazine. A newly discovered fragment of ancient manuscript contained a reference in which Jesus spoke of ‘my wife’. It is now thought by scholars that the fragment is a masterful forgery but Monk Kidd’s imagination was ignited. It matters little if a wife existed – although this may have changed the western world’s religious and cultural inheritance. What the author wished to explore was the life and times such a woman would have experienced.

The novel grew out of extensive research. It is written from the point of view of Ana, beginning when she is fourteen years old and about to be betrothed to a much older man in order to further her father’s ambitions. Eighteen year old Jesus is portrayed as fully human, still finding his own way following the death of his father. It is a fascinating premise from which to develop a story.

The first section of the book made me feel sad and angry. Ana is living with her wealthy parents in Sepphoris – a town in the central Galilee region. Unusually for a girl at that time, she has been permitted literacy, learning several languages. She reads and writes extensively much to her mother’s chagrin. On a fateful morning she is dressed to impress and taken to visit a local market where she discovers the plan for her future. Distraught, she makes a fuss – considered disgraceful behaviour – and draws the attention of a young man named Jesus.

Women at the time were chattels – belonging to father, husband or brother. They had few rights and could be traded, discarded, or worse, for misbehaviour. Ana rails against her fate. She is comforted by her disgraced aunt, Yaltha, but neither can change what has been decided. The author evokes well the actions women of this time were required to accept – especially within marriage.

Ana would be regarded as privileged. Her father benefits from his role as advisor to the local tetrarch, Herod Antipas. Nevertheless, the reader is shown how dangerous noncompliance can be when a friend of Ana’s is raped. Even Antipas’s wife has little agency.

The second section of the book is set in Nazareth. Events have enabled Ana to marry Jesus and she enters his household. With his father dead, Jesus and his brothers support their mother, wives, unmarried sisters, and children. Ana must learn to perform daily chores that her parents’ servants would have carried out. There is no money for writing materials.

The marriage is presented as a rare love story but both Jesus and Ana have ambitions – longings. When Ana intervenes to help a friend she puts her life in danger. Although not as emotive as the first section, the story continues apace.

The third section takes Ana and her aunt to Alexandria where they seek shelter with Yaltha’s older brother, Haran. This is an act of desperation but the women require a man’s protection. Haran is wealthy but ruthless with a strong vindictive streak. Ana and Yaltha are well housed but also imprisoned. Ana can write her stories again but misses her beloved husband desperately.

I found this the least compelling section. The author weaves Yaltha’s tale into Ana’s well to enable the years of Jesus’s peripatetic ministry to pass but the pace felt slower than previously.

The final two sections of the book are fairly short and offer a satisfying conclusion. The reader learns of Jesus’s death and what becomes of Ana. This is her story rather than her husband’s but the role he plays is well presented. Being a messiah is all well and good but comes at a cost to his family. In giving Ana drive and her own aspirations, the author makes plausible her acceptance of this. The risks Ana took appeared foolish in places but enabled the various threads being woven to progress.

Monk Kidd succeeds in portraying the difficulties of being female in ancient times. The writing is smooth and each character introduced adds to understanding of options and dangers. Much is covered with varied characters and mostly convincing development. An enjoyable if somewhat lengthy read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.