The Book Of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
Tinder Press €15.99
SUE MONK KIDD has lived every secret writer’s dream. Frustrated by her original “day job” as a nurse, she ditched that to marry, raise children, and explore her own spiritual interests — the Zen Catholicism of Thomas Merton, followed by what she calls feminist theology — while writing memoirs.
Finally, in 2002, she soared to spectacular success with the publication when aged 54 of her first novel, The Secret Lives of Bees, which sold more than eight million copies and was translated into 36 languages. Two further novels sold one-million-plus copies apiece. Adored by Oprah Winfrey, the doyenne of ten thousand mostly female reading groups, she has been on television and radio everywhere.
Alas, with The Book of Longings, a novel about Jesus Christ’s long “silenced” missing wife Ana, Monk Kidd has fallen spectacularly back to earth. Quite simply, this is one of the most preposterous stories ever told.
In her afterword, Susan Kidd Monk explains that since almost nothing is known of Jesus’s life between the ages of 13 and 30, she felt quite justified as a novelist in creating a flesh and blood wife for him. Maybe so. But the problem is that her protagonist Ana is incredible both as a historical figure and as a human being. She like many fellow characters in this tale comes off as a modern American sent back through time to enlighten the Flintstones at every turn.
Since it’s Christ at hand here, you would think there might be some spellbinding characterisations included, perhaps peppered with magic realism and a variety of feverish disquisitions about the meaning of all things. Nah, none of that. Instead, great swathes of this story are achingly dull. Ana yearns, and Ana longs.
Of course, the primary figure in The Book of Longings is not Jesus anyway but Ana — aka “Little Thunder”. She happens to have a brother called Judas Iscariot. At first, Ana’s a typical American teenager — she slams doors, lies and sulks. Although a Jew in the heartland of Judea she cares little about Jewish identity or mores. What Ana wants is to be left alone to become a writer — a papyrus-back writer.
Kidd Monk sets the scene with shimmering descriptions of the physicality of things (including the “musky scent” of Jesus) and there are some good historical background details. But then a cousin, Tabitha, is raped by a Roman and has her tongue cut out for daring to yell about it on the street. Ana herself cowers in terror in the knowledge that she’s about to be fobbed off in marriage to a hideous rich troll. But then the troll dies, making way for Jesus Christ.
Jesus is about 21 years-old when they meet. With the help of her slave Lavi, Ana basically stalks him, while herself on a mission to bury her writing shards in the hills for safe and eternal keeping. A sudden downpour causes Little Thunder and Jesus to huddle together in a cave and — bingo. Whether God the Father approves, they tie the knot and set up parallel sleep mats in Nazareth. Herbal contraceptives allow for safe sex.
The family compound may be cheap but is cheerful with goats and hens mixed in among Jesus’ rather feckless brothers and his aging but never-complaining mother Mary. That’s until Ana shows up with her ever-kvetching (and very modern sit-com) aunt Yaltha. Despite centuries of anguished paintings and countless sculptures and sonnets about Jesus previously in this story he remains sort of a Californian slacker dude, very shadowy and noncommittal. For those who like say, Dostoevsky, turn elsewhere for possession-states or transcendence, or even interesting crowd scenes.
Jesus does get itchy after a while and starts a-wandering, at first just for work gigs or fishing trips with the boys at Galilee. But then he becomes ever more absorbed with the Creator and meets mesmerising hapless strangers from out of the blue. Never Ana, though.
She’s off in other realms chanting and channeling up her preferred alternative female spirit of divine wisdom from ancient Greece, Sophia. The couple’s marital drift intensifies with the appearance of John the Baptist (renamed here for agnostic cred “the Immerser”), and Jesus’ (typical male) disappearance for Forty Days in the Wilderness — which Sue Monk Kidd came frighteningly close to sticking Ana in.
Meanwhile, Little Thunder’s big brother Judas slinks back with tidings of a Roman crackdown to come. Therefore, Little Thunder dashes off a cuneiform to a woman also sure to be in harm’s way. The Romans find out about this and she falls into grave danger. Meanwhile Jesus keeps pushing the envelope too — it’s getting like Altamont and the Hell’s Angels now.
As a result, Ana and kvetching Yaltha are whisked off to ancient Egypt, with the Libyan Lavi as always reliably leading the way. Once in Alexandria the loving trio bump into Tabitha, who despite having her tongue cut out has forged a new career as a busker as seen on Oliver Plunkett Street. Through more mischief, they all get long locked away forever by a Bad Uncle with a Big Compound, under whose thumb Ana is forced to work as a scribe.
Months pass, until with the help of the ever-eager Lavi, they steal the keys and escape to an all-female arts community outside the city limits — sort of a Topanga Canyon with a Joni Mitchell too. Ana is thrilled because there’s a library and works on more shards.
The only problem is that some more Barney Rubble soldiers bumble around outside the gate for eight months, day and night, menacing her and the entire concept of Woodstock Nation or Thomas Merton drowned in soothing herbs. But the Flintstones never work up the nerve to go inside.
And remember that second fiddle, Jesus Christ? Eventually word arrives that he’s in mortal danger, and that Little Thunder better race back to Judea if she wants to see him alive one last time.
Thanks again to — you guessed it — the ever-loyal Lavi (who Ana now frees and declares her soul brother for all time) the goofy soldiers are outwitted. After a harrowing voyage, Ana squeezes in to witness the Betrayal (by her big brother), Crucifixion, and Death Agonies of her beloved husband, God.
But quickly Ana says goodbye forever — to Judea, the disciples, and the whole Jewish thing — and hikes back to the commune to pursue a lifetime of inspired scroll writing, when not in séance with Sophia. Things go well. A year later, Ana and friends dance around another scroll burial of her all-time best works. When they look into the high heavens above, they almost see Oprah toasting them with a glass of white wine.
That then is the story of The Book of Longings. And anything is possible in fiction, including the possibility that once you find a formula that enthralled O, the Oprah Magazine, you’ll use it again and again and again.