Historical fiction is a curious genre. In some sense, the pleasures of reading historical fiction are similar to those we gain from reading fiction set in exotic landscapes. The thrill of seeing men and women living lives in such different circumstances to our own. At times, historical fiction can become a kind of decorative art: more concerned with the mise en scene of bodices and buckram than the exploration of characters and lives, either fictional or non-fictional. Not all historical fiction is alike: some works use history as a backdrop, inventing characters and stories, like the hugely successful historical works of Sarah Waters (Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet). Others take historical figures as a leaping off point, imagining into the gaps in the record, such as Geraldine Brooks (Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing), or A S Byatt, whose The Children’s Book is something of a reimagining of the life of children’s author Edith Nesbitt. Still others seek to place more or less well-known historical figures at the centre of their stories, humanising and particularising their lives while aiming to stick, more or less, to the facts. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for example, or Philipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl.
Within these types of works – or across them – there are a small sub-genre of historical novels that seek to rewrite or reimagine classical Biblical stories. Investing them with the rich detail, deep characterisation and interiority that the Bible lacks. An even smaller sub-set of these Biblical retellings are revisionist – often feminist – in their intentions. Focusing on the stories of female Biblical characters to enrich, subvert or challenge the patriarchal emphasis of the Bible. Perhaps the most well-known of these works is Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent: a wonderfully rich retelling of the story of Jacob’s wives – Rachel, Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah – from the perspective of Rachel’s daughter, Dinah. Like Cannold’s book, it takes the story of Jacob and his wives, and of Dinah, from Genesis as a leaping-off point for an imaginative exploration of the lives of women in Biblical times. Rather than being slavishly attentive to the story as handed down in the Bible, it focuses on the unwritten, unrecorded history of women.
Like The Red Tent, The Book of Rachel, along with being a reimagining of a Biblical story, belongs to that subset of historical fiction novels that are politically motivated. Works that seek to imaginatively redress the marginalisation of women, people of colour, slaves, children, people of the lower classes, the mentally ill and so on in the official - and fictional - historical records. Australian author Kate Grenville’s novel Joan Makes History is something of an iconic work of this kind, a novelistic equivalent of Woolf’s musings on what may have happened had Shakespeare had a sister.
Novels that seek to make central the historically occluded or erased lives of women are an enormous part of this sub-genre of historical fiction. At their best, they imaginatively create a more rounded sense of the past, balancing what we know with what probably was, foregrounding the tension between what we know and what we have failed to record or remember, creatively decentring our comfortable view of history . At their worst, they superficially impose the moral, ethical and social presumptions of contemporary women onto figures from an earlier time, creating awkward figures that are neither of their time nor our own, and who jut out from the historical landscape like awkward time-travellers in an otherwise realist story.
Cannold’s The Book of Rachel is overtly a work of revisionist historical fiction: a work in which Cannold imaginatively creates two sisters for the Biblical figure of Jesus after seeing a documentary in which it was asserted that “Jesus may have had sisters, but no one knew their names.” It also, in a quietly heretical fashion, reimagines some key figures who do figure in the Biblical narrative of Christ, most notably Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Judas. Each of these figures are slightly renamed in the novel (Joshua, Miriame, Yosef and Judah), perhaps to move them a step away from their mythical, perhaps historical, counterparts, though the basic structure of their relationships are maintained, and key events in the players’ lives are recognise, though each event is seen through far more of a realist lens. There are no virgin births, resurrections, or miracles of loaves and fishes, instead the events of Joshua’s life are rewritten as non-magical events, albeit with enormous political and social impact.
The story is narrated by Joshua’s sister, Rachael, in a brisk, engaging and modern voice. The style is easy to read, racing along through a story filled with drama, romance and intrigue. While the writing is spare, Cannold is deft at evoking the dry, humble landscape of her character’s lives, bringing a fresh but spare beauty to her tale. She is also adept at creating characters that live and breathe. Some of this is, as with the main character, Rachael, at the expense of historical realism: the characters talk and think in modern language and terms. This isn’t so much a weakness as a choice: one that makes the characters feel more like hybrids of modern and historical folk than people of their time, and which perhaps makes them easier for a modern reader to empathise with, and to understand. Rachael’s relationship with Judah, for example, proceeds according to fairly familiar romantic tropes for modern readers, in which her emotional and physical attraction to him are foregrounded. In the scene where they first walk alone together, for example, their awkwardness is underscored by a sexual yearning that finds partial expression in her appreciation for the beauty of the landscape:
I found it hard even to meet his gaze. In reply to my shyness, Judah’s eyes trailed me like I was royalty; or so fragile, perhaps, that I might break. It was spring, and the climate was a cradle, the outside air a perfect match for the heat in our blood. The trail was a narrow bridal walk, strewn with the season’s flowers: cyclamen of every shade and explosions of white hyacinth. Strangers trudged past from the opposite direction. Assyrians and Phoenicians, their eyes downcast, backs and beasts burdened with sacramental wares for the Temple market in Jerusalem. We neither greeted them nor spoke to each other. So long did the stilted silence between us prevail that the skin beneath my arms and woven belt began weeping with uneasy sweat.
Finally, Judah cleared his throat. ‘Rachel,’ he began, his voice cracking. I turned as if admiring a rolling hill of wildflowers to hide my smile. He was nervous, too. (122)
While many of the key events of the Biblical story of Jesus inform the plot, it is largely the story of women’s lives. Not just Rachael, whose intelligence and independence are typical of the proto-feminist protagonists of feminist/revisionist historical fiction, but also her bitter and difficult mother, Miriame, the healer-crone, Bindy, and Rachael’s sister, Shona.
In some ways, Rachael is a deeply anachronistic character. It is difficult to believe that a woman of her time, place, and class would so easily embrace the principles of equality and independence that a modern Australian woman takes for granted. And yet, if, as a reader, you’re prepared to put aside the question of how or why she is the way she is, the novel is an engaging and imaginative story about how such a woman might make her way in the ancient world of Galilee. In this sense, the novel is deeply speculative: a ‘what if’ novel that considers almost overtly the conflict between historical and contemporary notions of gender, identity and class.
In some ways, like most works of historical fiction, it is in the end most concerned not with the past, but with the present. Or, perhaps more accurately, with the ongoing negotiations between the past and the present. The novel, like many of its kind, invites us to consider what has changed, what we have learned, what we have failed to learn. If the bare facts of Rachael’s life, and the lives of the other women in the novel, are deeply scarred by the patriarchal culture in which they live, they are scarred in ways that are still recognisable. In many parts of the world, including the so-called First World, women still struggle for equality and true independence. Women’s sexual, financial and social independence is still constricted by moral, ethical, religious and legal systems that have evolved from systems such as those that govern Rachael’s life.
This is an engaging and easy-to-read book. Though, clearly, it may not be suitable for those whose personal beliefs are at odds with its pragmatic and feminist reimagining of the Biblical story, it is a fascinating attempt to recreate ancient Galilee and imagine what it might have been like for a woman with more modern sensibilities to live there.