Major problems, minor jokes – you cannot blame the patriarchy for being a machine not versatile in output. These wretched gifts all find their place in Shinie Antony’s Eden Abandoned, where we go back to one story of how ancient this man, woman, trouble plot really is.

In this retelling of the Biblical creation myth, the fable of Adam and Eve is abandoned for the less puritan story of Adam and Lilith. It starts in the garden of Eden as the holy narratives have described it to us: trees bear fruits fresh as hope, waters glisten crystal with God’s perfection, and nature dances in the glory of being. A world created for two, it bears the promise of abundance in eternity. Here, out of clay, God fashions Adam, the first man, and – this is where the book departs from the King James Bible – in that same moment Lilith is made of the same soil, the first woman.

Want and desire

The two have each other, and they have the world; their experience of it all curious, hungry, exhilarating. They roam this magical land naked, man and woman each other’s companion and complement. In these first moments of being, love tiptoes its way in, naturally. Written from Lilith’s perspective, in Eden Abandoned the rapturous feeling of the first experience of want and desire finds delicate expression, beautiful and full of abandon.

Adam, however, is a man (more on this later). His mood turns, dark clouds appear. As Lilith recounts, now he wants to make love his way, is emasculated by Lilith’s sense of humour, and shows little evidence of ever reflecting upon his complex feelings. If you recognise the problem with this in our world, you can see why that would be a bigger problem in a world where there is only one man.

The withdrawal of love turns out to be a potent tool: Lilith tries to change, to win it back, but the script of womanhood that now seems natural to us now has not yet been revealed to her. Her conscience revolts; spurned by Adam and disillusioned with this life, Lilith rejects the world of Eden, wandering outside. She is delirious in pain; it is in ways that will later be branded demonic that she makes another home. Lilith does not bite her tongue, does not stop to ask whether her thoughts disqualify her from any claims to virtuousness – the first sin has not yet been committed, and in this kingdom of heaven, shame has still not appeared.

But now God’s plan is upset; with man and woman falling out, how is life to go on? This is how Eve comes to be – made out of Adam’s rib, oblivious to the impossibility of ever being her own person. In this story – as in dominant Christian belief – Eve is the woman whose image much of 20th-century feminism was militating against: meek, docile, her horizons limited by who the man in her life imagines her to be. Her domesticity is her charm; in her submissiveness and willingness to please, she knows that to build a home in this world is to build it around Adam.

The undoing of Lilith

Even in her unbridled rage, Antony’s Lilith is human and humane, generous in her understanding of Eve, and the trap of performance the latter is too naive to appreciate. As the meaning of Adam shunning her crystallises making her full of rage and venom, Lilith comes undone, her eventual return to the Garden of Eden as a serpent a long plot for the downfall of man.

Antony makes an admirable attempt to give words to this fury – historically restrained, generationally inherited – with a sharp voice and some clever turns of phrase that made me smile. In her hands, Lilith transcends any need for likeability, instead turning to honesty – brittle, humiliating, always cognizant of the liberty these truths grant.

I will admit some frustration with the premise – if Adam, crafted by God himself, all his attributes divine, could never escape this innate impulse for subordination, how can we reasonably expect it from other men, all of them very evidently – sometimes even painfully – human in their imperfections? If Adam is insufferable even before biting into the forbidden fruit, maybe the men’s rights activists are right: to demand that they shed all we despise in them is to inflict upon them certain cruelty. There is, of course, the other ambivalent conclusion one is left to ponder: what if men are just not designed to laugh at women’s jokes?

More importantly, it is never quite clear how Adam manages to remain impervious to what is innately clear to Lilith: that love is a project of recognition. To be loved is to be seen, the possibility of its full reward contingent on our ability to reciprocate this act of recognition, to see the other as a subject. You would think life in a two-person setting would make it easier for him to see the master-slave dynamic our civilisation had to wait for Hegel to lay out, but alas.

Despite this, Eden Abandoned is a good case for coming up with new ways to read our gendered relationships as something other than tragic – funny, and continually interesting. If one were to read it as a problem statement – and I think many mythological ideas are most provocative when they are– perhaps one of the internet’s favourite expressions of disappointment can also be our hope: every day we stray further from God’s light.

Eden Abandoned: The Story of Lilith, Shinie Antony, Hachette India.