Leslie Cannold, The Book of Rachael (Text 2011)
At the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year I embarrassed myself and Leslie Cannold, author of this book about an imagined sister to Jesus, by singing her a snatch of Dory Previn:
Did he have a sister, a little baby sister,
Did Jesus have a sister?
Was she there at his death?
I was expecting to find in the novel the kind of revisionist pleasure provided by ‘Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister‘ (the link takes you to the song on YouTube). But it turns out to be quite a different beast: it doesn’t so much ring changes on the biblical story as set out to imagine what life would have been for a spirited young woman in the time of Jesus, using the biblical story as a kind of baseline. There is some revisionism, of course: the virgin birth is explained – almost incidentally – by the familiar Roman soldier story; as a young man, Joshua/Jesus comes home late at night smelling of alcohol and women; and there’s an excellent account of the raising of Lazarus. But the aim isn’t to debunk or mock.
It’s years since I read any theology, apart from Tissa Balasuriya’s Mary and Human Liberation. Leslie Cannold’s approach to the biblical narrative goes quite a bit beyond Balasuriya’s ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, and she certainly doesn’t take up his vision of Mary (here called Miriame) as a revolutionary figure. I doubt if many scholars would take seriously the book’s version of how Joshua came to go on his preaching mission (he was looking for a woman who was pregnant to him, who had been consequently sold into prostitution by her father). It’s clear from this and other examples that this is not an attempt at historical excavation. Such pernicketiness aside, I don’t think I’ve ever read an account of the Jesus story that brings home more clearly what it meant to be poor or outcast or female in those times. That was the main pleasure of the book for me, rather than an engagement with the characters, who never quite came completely to life, despite even the scattering of cheerful sex scenes. Still, the pleasure was considerable.
But it’s November, and a sonnet is compulsory, even though it may create even more embarrassment all round than an off-key rendition of Dory Previn:
Sonnet 5: Where were the women?
These days I think of the Last Supper
and wonder where the women were
when Jesus foretold in that upper
room his foes would soon bestir
themselves and take his life. Who cooked
and shared that meal, were overlooked
by gospels and two thousand years
of art and preaching? More than spears
such silence pierces the hearts
of half the world. Oh they were there,
not just their sinful, perfumed hair
or veils, or wombs and other parts.
They've always held up half the sky.
Their absence is a stupid lie.