If there’s one word that characterises our post-pandemic existence, it is “longing”. Whether of outdoor indulgences or social interaction, we’re suffused with unfulfilled urges. No two people feel this more urgently than lovers parted by travel bans.
At the heart of Sue Monk Kidd’s fourth bestseller, The Book of Longings, is a tale of similar deprivation. Of course, it joins a long list of creative reimaginings of the modern world’s most celebrated messiah. What if, Kidd asks, Jesus had a wife? It’s not a new question, to be sure. Long is the list of stabs at this alluring idea that has for centuries aggravated conservatives and clergy.
That “salacious” suggestion, however, is not Kidd’s intent. Fortunately, she pursues the question with all the creative licence afforded to a writer at the height of her powers. In doing so, it illuminates the lives of the people orbiting around a dominant protagonist – role-players that the scripture brings into view but never animates. Serving as an allegorical answer to a timely question: what does the voice of those whom history marginalises sound like?
Marrying the stonemason
In this retelling, we view the pre-birth of Christiandom through the eyes of Ana, Jesus’s irrepressible young bride. Born into privilege, her life traces the dimmest hours of patriarchy. Women aren’t meant to be educated, or have any agency. Their lot is to be mere chattels for reproduction, and pawns traded in political manoeuvring. Not for the uncommonly multi-lingual Ana though, is a docile submission to matrimony not of her making.
Goaded by a proto-feminist aunt, her burning ambition to write is a dangerously renegade pursuit for the times. Rebellious and ungovernable, she protests against the gilded cage of an arranged marriage. And in bringing shame to the family in the process, she is cast out to marry a lowly stonemason, Jesus.
To this foundational plot point Kidd adds a few clever adaptations. Ana is saved by Jesus from a public stoning, Jesus is not the celibate miracle worker we know him to be, and Judas, history’s most popular backstabber, is Ana’s stepbrother.
Part revisionist history, part travelogue, the novel fashions itself into a fable of two intertwining elements – a repressed voice wanting be heard, and a love story that lingers across the vagaries of time and place. By depriving the son of god of divinity, the story also constructs itself around Ana’s world view.
As Jesus embarks on his ecclesiastical endeavours and reappears in interludes, her desire for her partner is constant but not not cloying; her ambition at authorship, unrelenting but not overblown. Yet, it is her innate ingenuity and bravado that make Ana’s travels across Israel and Egypt an engrossing adventure. As a nurse who one day walked into her kitchen to declare she wanted to become a writer, Kidd may well identify closely with her protagonist.
Living apart together
It’s impossible not to draw a dotted line between Ana’s experiences and our current post-pandemic existential crisis. Lovers living apart. Couples living under unnatural strictures. Partners’ affections stretched thin by time and distance.
Even before the epidemic eviscerated conjugal unions amongst the hopeful, The Book of Longings offers a foretaste of what happens when personal ambitions confront conventional relationships. Danielle J Lindemann, a sociologist and the author of Commuter Spouses: New Families in a Changing World, said that most of the couples she interviewed felt the arrangement was necessary to keep the momentum going in their careers. Those who study these couples, who are part of a group known as LATs (living apart together), agree that their numbers are on the rise.
Nevertheless, it is the woman who pursues her partner in a series of improbable twists. It is the woman who bears the burden of navigating society’s entrenched misogyny. And it is the woman who must juggle her duties with her desires. The saviour, standing on the brink of divinity, is instead engaged in a higher, though mysterious, and ultimately fatal pursuit.
All along, Monk Kidd gingerly navigates the balance between presenting Ana as an obsessed lover, and an empowered, self-possessed woman willing to defy the orthodoxies of class, gender, and faith. Again, a persona that has very much crossed into our current era, where feminism often finds that it has to assert itself against armies of outraged trolls.
Still, The Book of Longings is, more than anything, a coming of age story without falling prey to trite tropes. Nor does it seek to valorise the modern world’s most well-marketed saviour. Showing us perhaps that when women choose to deify the male figure in their life, they may do so at their own peril. As a story however, it sketches an arresting narrative arc across a life in which many lives are lived. One in which the wordless fellowship of women carries the weight of humanity’s cherished desires.
The novel is, ultimately, a reminder that sometimes, the witness can be as powerful a protagonist as the central character in mythology. After all, the witness stands spectator to history’s most hallowed happenings. Every once in a while though, their unobtrusive observation turns into testimony. It is this testimony that fills the pages of a searing tale of unimaginable sorrow and seeking. Teaching us that often, salvation sought elsewhere can also lie deep within us.
The Book of Longings, Sue Monk Kidd, Viking.
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