“I AM Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder.” So opens The Book of Longings, by Sue Monk Kidd, who is best known for her debut novel The Secret Life of Bees, both a New York Times bestseller and a highly successful Hollywood film.
The novel explores the life of a young woman raised in a wealthy family in Sepphoris. Her father is in the service of the tetrarch Herod Antipas. Ana is rebellious and ambitious, and longs for education. In spite of her mother’s opposition and the expectations of the day, she persuades her father to allow her to learn to read and write. Encouraged by her aunt Yaltha, who has her own story of rebellion (her aunt’s mouth was “the wellspring of thrilling and unpredictable utterances”), Ana spends her time secretly writing down the stories of neglected and silenced women.
Unfortunately for Ana, her parents have plans for her, and she finds herself, at the age of 14, betrothed to a much older man whose wife has died, leaving him with children. Ana rebels. At about the same time, she encounters the 18-year-old Jesus who, though devout, is yet to articulate his calling. Each is drawn to the other’s spiritual and intellectual ideas. When Ana’s betrothed dies, leaving Ana disgraced, they marry, in spite of Jesus’s low status as a manual labourer. Ana moves to live in Nazareth with Jesus and his family, accompanied by the indomitable Yaltha.
As the story unfolds, we witness a loving marriage that is highly unusual by the standards of the day. Jesus treats Ana as an equal, accepting her desire to write and her reluctance to have children. Ana, for her part, turns her hands to the manual labour and household tasks that are expected of her in her new life, although nothing in her upbringing has prepared her for this. All this is lived out in the closest proximity to Ana’s mother-in-law Mary, her brothers-in-law James and Simon and their wives, and her sister-in-law Salome.
Throw in the oppression of the Romans and the involvement of Ana’s brother Judas (yes, that Judas) in the uprising, and the stage is set for high drama. Ana’s impetuousness leads her into danger, with the result that she finds herself unable to accompany Jesus when his public ministry begins. Instead, she and her aunt take refuge in Alexandria, where they find a new freedom.
© Tony PearceThe author Sue Monk Kidd, an American novelist best known for her critically acclaimed book The Secret Life of Bees
It is not by any means original to posit the idea that Jesus married. But it is fair to say that this is a new and well-crafted take on a familiar — if once shocking — idea. Ana is no Mary Magdalene; she is a character all of her own. Nor is she presented simply as a foil to her husband; most of the plot keeps Jesus safely off stage. It is worth emphasising that the author works hard not to offend. “I’m deeply and reverentially aware that Jesus is a figure to whom millions of people are devoted,” she writes in the author’s note. “His impact on the history of Western civilization is incomparable.” That said, some readers will take issue with this far less radical Jesus, and his portrayal as something of a pawn in the game of more violent reformers.
Kidd’s portrayal of Jesus is respectful and compassionate; this is Jesus the man at his most human. But this is Ana’s story, full of uncomfortable parallels for us today. Even as a member of the privileged classes Ana’s life is severely curtailed and her freedom limited simply by virtue of her sex. She is entirely dependent on men for her survival, and has to fight for her right to education. Her friend Tabitha is raped, and for naming the crime is punished with the brutal cutting out of her tongue; and Ana is disciplined, by having her writing tools confiscated, for the audacity of defending her friend. How many Anas have endured such oppression over the centuries and still do today?
The book is well researched and a cracking good read. Kidd is a writer who inspires confidence in the reader: from the first page you have the sense that you are in safe hands. The events of the Gospels are woven into a believable narrative, and the portrait of the marriage a sympathetic one. The “longing” of the title inspires several of the characters: Ana and Jesus, trying to find their place in the world; Judas and Yaltha fighting cruelty and injustice in their own individual ways.
There is, of course, a sense of impending doom. We all know the end of the story, or part of it at least. We know that Jesus will die a horrible death, witnessed by those who loved him, including the women who wept at the foot of the cross. We know that things turn out badly for Judas. But Kidd has a free hand with Ana’s own future. The ending for her, is coherent and emotionally satisfying. As the last sentence reads: “I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus of Nazareth. I am a voice.”
Sarah Meyrick is a novelist. Her latest novel is Joy and Felicity (Sacristy Press, 2021).
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd is published by Tinder Press at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-4722-3251-9.
THE BOOK OF LONGINGS — SOME QUESTIONS
- “All my life, longings lived inside me.” What longings lived inside Ana?
- “It’s not meant as a factual story, but it’s still true.” Are there elements of this novel that can be considered “true”?
- “The anger made me brave and the grief made me sure”. When can our emotions work for us?
- What are the important female friendships in the novel?
- Sue Monk Kidd writes that she wanted to emphasise “Jesus the man”, not “God the Son”. Did she succeed? What were your feelings about her portrayal?
- “I am Ana. . . I am a voice.” Why did Monk Kidd feel it so important to give Ana a voice?
- “You are Sophia’s daughter.” What does this mean, and is it significant?
- How does Ana approach motherhood? Is motherhood still considered a woman’s most important role?
- How do the different characters in the novel respond to the violence and systemic injustice they see around them?
- In what way is Mary described in the novel? Did the description resonate, for you?
IN OUR next Reading Groups page on 6 May, we will print an introduction to our next book, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan. It is published by Vintage at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-5291-1405-8. This title will be the focus for our new monthly books podcast, coming in early May. More details to follow.
Richard Flanagan’s eighth novel is a thoughtful, often challenging, look at death and life in an age of environmental catastrophe. Anna and her two brothers come together when their elderly mother, Francie, is reaching the end of her life. The siblings argue over their mother’s medical treatment, and a series of increasingly uncomfortable medical procedures prolong her life, but not necessarily her happiness. Outside, beyond the family drama, bush fires rage and wildlife populations plummet. Meanwhile, mobile-phone screens offer a distraction to those unwilling to view the bleak realities around them. Despite its stark topic, the novel is grounded in hope.
Richard Flanagan was born in Tasmania, Australia, in 1961. Two of his great-great-grandparents were convicts from Ireland, transported during the Great Famine. Flanagan grew up in the remote Tasmanian mining town of Rosebery, and left school at 16, before returning to study at the University of Tasmania and Worcester College, Oxford. While best known as a novelist, Flanagan is also a screenwriter and author of several non-fiction books. He is also a respected journalist, with a particular focus on environmental journalism. Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Booker Prize in 2013.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
June: Jack by Marilynne Robinson
July: Widowland by C. J. Carey