2011, 324 p.
Leslie Cannold is an esteemed Australian public intellectual best known for her contribution to debates over feminism and reproductive technology. I haven’t read her previous non-fiction publications What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth but I generally read her newspaper columns and articles. This is her first fictional work.
The impetus for this book, the author tells us, sprang from watching the BBC documentary Son of God. This documentary examined Jesus the man (as distinct from Jesus the religious figure) and mentioned that he had four brothers who were named. His sisters- if indeed he even had any- were un-named and not part of the historical record at all. When Cannold went to research the existence of these possible sisters, she found that there was nothing – not even enough for an article. “That’s OK” she thought “I’ll just write a novel instead.” And here it is: dedicated to the women of her family and to “every woman still struggling for a place in history.”
This goes some way to explain my response to the book. Cannold wanted, from the start, to mount an argument about women’s visibility in history, and the injustice of their life experience in 1st century Galilee. It is a conscious, political statement that places women back into the biblical story. The eponymous Rachael is the intelligent, headstrong younger daughter of Yosef the carpenter and his wife Miriame, and the sister of the charismatic preacher, Joshua. This slight shifting in the names unsettles our easy identification with the gospel story, and there is certainly no supernatural or religious element here at all. Her father Yosef is a good, loving man; Miriame is a carping, bitter woman and certainly no saintly figure; her brother Joshua changes from a quietly empathetic ally into a somewhat fey, distant figure, driven by his own obsessions and agendas. Rachael, conscious from the start of her difference and chafing against the many restrictions placed on women, becomes an acolyte of ‘the crone’ Bindy, who initiates her into the women’s arts of healing. She falls in love and marries Judah of Iscariot, rebel leader of a guerilla band that is resisting the Roman authorities. She struggles with the pressures to have a baby and yet continue her work as a healer.
The anachronisms started early- on the second page in fact, with the ‘Galilean resistance fighters’ (shades of Monty Python’s Judean People’s Front??) and Rachael’s mindset is a thoroughly twenty-first century one. The book is obviously well researched, especially the details of women’s medicine and herbalism, but the research is conveyed with a heavy hand.
The book reminded me of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, but it has none of the rich female intimacy that marked that book. The Book of Rachael is a book of the head that mounts an aetheistic alternative narrative to the gospel. Perhaps it could be described as an extended, fictionalized ‘what-if’ argument. As a reader I found myself watching how the argument was constructed, weighing it and judging how well it countered the gospel account.
I switched to intellectualizing the book because it was the only way that I could break through the writing, that veers between chicklit and stilted, pompous prose. At times there are hints of a biblical cadence- think Song of Solomon perhaps- but they are fleeting and not sustained throughout the book. Is it just me, perhaps? Very few of the reviews I have read address the issue of the narrative voice at all. I’ll leave it to you- here’s an example. Here is our first century, Jewish narrator. A deeply troubled Judah has gone off by himself, just prior to Passover, ostensibly to buy a sacrificial lamb for the feast that night, but we sense (and know) for another purpose:
By late afternoon I was close to gnawing off my own arm from idleness when Judah burst through the door, whistling through his teeth. I ran to his side, desperate for company and news. ‘Where were you?’
He removed his scarf and pegged it on the hook before turning to me. His brow was smooth and eyes clear. He was Judah again: vigorous, confident, in charge. ‘Nowhere,’ he boomed cheerfully, then changed his mind: ‘Buying a lamb for sacrifice. I have tied it in the lane.’ He looked around then gathered me for a passionate kiss, one hand gripping a breast. When we separated he gazed in the direction of the hearth. ‘Is there anything to eat?’ (p. 272,3)
The reviews I have read of this book are generally glowing. Lisa at ANZLit Lovers wrote one of the most enthusiastic reviews I’ve ever seen her give; Kylie Ladd on Mamamia liked it too, as did Theo Chapman in the SMH and Patricia Maundel on Radio National’s Bookshow.
I’m afraid that I have to disagree.
My rating: 5/10
Reason read: Australian literature bookgroup
Book obtained from: Eltham Bookshop (purchased)